We recently came across a blog from a local newspaper outlet that we read with interest and not a little dismay. The blog highlights how one of the major regulators in the state, the California Public Utilities Commission, is trying to change its safety culture following a major disaster in the area that it was at least partly responsible for, according to critics. As part of the effort to change its culture the regulator was going to hire consultants to help in the process. The blog is critical of this process, quoting others who point to failed leadership as the root cause, with the fix being “replacing the commission’s brass” as a quick way to change the culture.
Now, we have to say that we’re probably not an unbiased observer on the issues related to hiring consultants, so we won’t speak to that aspect of the blog. However, the implication of much of the blog is that the problems are poor leaders and if we only just replaced those leaders we wouldn’t have any more problems. This line of reasoning is common, flawed, and potentially dangerous.
In response to the killing of three civil rights workers Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned those who wanted justice to not ask who is to blame. Rather, they should ask what is to blame. King knew that if the only thing that resulted from these heinous murders were a few Ku Klux Klan members going to jail there would be no significant long-term benefit. People who were just as bigoted as the others would replace anyone they sent to jail and the problems would perpetuate. The problem isn’t the people, it’s the system that creates the people and allows them to act as they did.
King’s wisdom rings true in so many areas. We often times look for people to blame without considering that it might be the system that needs fixing. The problem is that it makes sense to blame people - it’s easier to just fire someone or tell them to do better next time rather than admit that the system is broken. It’s also a lot scarier to believe that the system is broken. Consider a case of malpractice in medicine – isn’t it scarier to think that the problem is due to a broken healthcare system rather than just a bad doctor?
And in this case, it’s so much more comforting to blame the problem on a few bad apples within the regulatory agency rather than to consider that the people operating in that agency may have to face complex and competing goals every day. The problem of course is that when we just blame the people in the system without trying to fix the system we’re accepting that we’ll run into similar problems in the future because eventually the same pressures that allowed mistakes to be made will push others too close to the edge and we’ll face another disaster with more innocent people suffering.