Identifying the problem before you make drastic social changes to solve it

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Identifying the problem before you make drastic social changes to solve it.

Back in the late 1950s, two high school boys in Westchester County, NY, got into the habit, for reasons obscured by the passage of time (and the untimely death of one of the miscreants), of picking up empty beer cans on their way to school, and then tossing them into an abandoned room they had discovered above the auditorium stage, at the top of a ladder. Some years after they graduated, the room was discovered, and draconian steps were taken to assure that the drunken orgies which were obviously taking place would be stopped. For all we know, some of the rules put into place then are still in existence.

In a later instance, a wide-ranging (robbery, burglary, sexual assault, homicide) crime wave in a Westchester town on the other side of the Hudson, caused a revamping of local ordinances. It turned out that the gang responsible was one demented person, but the laws still stay on the books.

More recently, after the terrible shooting of 16 school children and a teacher in Dunblane, Scotland, a Home Office report said this was the isolated work of a lunatic, and that no action should be taken. Instead, essentially all guns (and pretty much all pocket knives, and all right to fight back) were taken away, which many feel was part (in Western nations, restriction of gun ownership is ALWAYS followed by an increase in violence) of turning the UK from having one of the lowest assault rates in Western Europe to one of the highest.

The moral here is that attempting to solve problems is a good idea, but only if the problems are real. As a rule of thumb, a single aberrant incident, no matter how horrifying, may not require any additional changes, and certainly may not require sweeping changes.

As it turns out, most problems faced by business can be dealt with through fairly basic methods. As an example, if you are prepared for fire and natural disaster, you have probably done everything you need to do to be prepared for terrorism. If you have reasonable access control and separate shipping from receiving you probably don’t have much of a theft problem. If you identify abused partners and have a plan and a hidden place off to which you spirit them if their insignificant-other shows up, you probably (assuming you are not in the retail business, or out on the street as a cop or some such) don’t have much of a problem with workplace violence. If you do pre-hire screening of employees, from the CEO through to the janitor, and have identified critical information and have taken even minimal efforts to protect it, you probably don’t have much of a problem with information theft.

If, however, you decide you have some specific problem, based on a single incident, or an incident that happens so infrequently as to qualify, each time, as a single incident, and make sweeping changes to deal with that, you can frequently cause more harm than good. As an example, forcing employees to change each of their many computer passwords every thirty days seems like a good idea, but, in fact, is counterproductive, since most employees will simply write the new passwords on a Post-It note and stick it on their terminal, in their pencil cup, under their desk-pad, or in their top drawer. There are, in fact, ways to deal with this issue, but choices that lower security are not always a productive idea.

In some cases, taking unnecessary actions can go from being counter- productive to being destructive. We have in the past mentioned a company of which we heard that spent a huge amount of money revamping their mail room and mail procedures to deal with a possible anthrax attack, while simultaneously cutting out their free employee flu shots (nobody has resources to do everything). Since something on the order of 20,000 Americans will die of the flu this year, the logic escapes us. And of course, the most discussed example is the TSA, formed to combat a once-every- thirty-years event, whose main results have been the draining of manpower from less well-funded agencies, an increase in travel deaths from folks who have decided to drive rather than fly, and, if one is to believe the whispers, to induce potential terrorists to think about acquiring some of our misplaced Stinger missiles from Afghanistan (we are given to understand they only cost $250,000), in order to bypass that pesky airport security and simply knock planes out of the sky.

Bottom line: Before leaping to drastic solutions to your problems, make sure they really are problems, not one-time events that need to be handled before you go back to business as usual. And remember that if you smoke, drive without a seatbelt, live in Hurricane Alley, drink to excess, or don’t practice safe sex, you might want to re-think your concerns about criminals, socially disadvantaged criminal religious fundamentalists, and spies.

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