Friday, July 15, 2011

The myrmidon problem

Myrmidon means, "a loyal follower; a subordinate who executes orders unquestioningly or unscrupulously.” Check out this Back Story, entitled "The myrmidon problem," on the CommonWealth Magazine blog.

Looking at revelations of overly secretive behavior within the MA Department of Transportation, I quote from a Boston Globe story:

[O]ne transportation consultant . . . compared the atmosphere to President Nixon’s White House.

The consultant, C. David Taugher, wrote in a March internal report, “How deep does the culture go where nobody says anything, even when they know they should?’’

Then, I implicitly raise these questions:

Can't we draw lessons from process improvement in hospitals -- the power of transparency and a just culture -- and apply them in the political environment? Isn't it worth trying? Wouldn't it represent a powerful form of leadership for elected officials?

Here's my conclusion. Do you agree?

It is, indeed, an unusual organization that does not look for scapegoats when something goes wrong. The press coverage of the DOT this summer has made clear that a fear of blame underlies the senior officials in the agency. It is precisely at a time like this that those in charge – in this case, the governor and the secretary of transportation – must make it clear that their goal is for lessons to be learned, not to punish for real or perceived lapses. Holding someone accountable does not mean firing him. It means that the person has acknowledged the error and is committed to improving the organization’s capability for the future.

It will be a measure of this governor’s commitment to transparency if his administration adopts such a just culture and his cabinet head acts thoughtfully to change an environment in which the public is put at risk.


Anonymous said...

Commonwealth is perhaps my favorite publication. I wish that we could get it in print here in New Zealand. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

The root cause of the myrmidon problem is us - the public. Read the comments on the Boston Globe article about Mr. Mullan's purported resignation and you will see what I mean. The primary goal of any elected official is to get re-elected. Since they don't want to know of any problems on their watch, the culture of secrecy is inevitable. This has been known for decades, but nothing will change until the public loses its appetite for dumbed-down explanations and scapegoats. Don't hold your breath.


Matthew Leo said...

From Facebook:

Kaoru Ishikawa, the famous engineering professor and quality control innovator said, "When quality control is implemented, falsehood disappears from the company." He also said, "In management, the first concern is the company is the happiness of the people connected with it."

I was listening to a business management podcast recently and it struck me that the speaker, while supporting the value of ethics, had no clear idea of why he should. Ethics aren't important because they contribute to the bottom line, but if you need a bottom-line argument it would be this: when integrity is lost as a value in corporate culture, how can a company be rationally managed in an atmosphere of deception and scapegoating?

Anonymous said...


It is productive to make conspicuous this lesson. In 2007, when James Conway (Harvard, IHI) encouraged Beth Israel Deaconness to equal its mission with goals for quality that would 'make us proud,' the ethics motivated, but the means were less sure. Through years of persistent effort by many working together and in new ways, quality became growth. And the directive to eliminate preventable harm came to serve not as strategic stretch, but as a proactive leap over the entropy of untenable competing demands. It did not make them disappear. But it did clarify the one thing that should be done each day.

Imbedded in the lesson of how transparency made the intractable actionable, is that we can't ultimately avoid the question of how to measure value. We can kick it down the road a while. Pass it to a technician. Use last year’s algorithm. Put it in next year’s strategic plan. But, ultimately, we can't tinker with bed telemetry or rusting light fixtures to avoid the costs of mismatch between system and social demand.

It often seems that the needed bolus of energy to evolve a better system is the thing most avoided. In healthcare, it is fresh perspective and the harnessing of patient energy. In infrastructure design, perhaps, it is the skill of those who can bring the public to the table. Perhaps the tunnel needs a Twitter?

Great call-out.

Paula Ivey Henry

Michael Pahre said...

When running for office, absolutely everyone claims that they are for transparency. Then, once in office, all of a sudden they dawdle and claim that various things are "sensitive" or ought to be in "executive session" or whatever.

It just ain't all that hard to be transparent. What amazes me is the incredible amount of resistance that otherwise reasonable people exert to block transparency.

Bruce said...

From Facebook:

From what I have studied on this, the problem is a combination of the fundamental attribution error (inappropriate attention to the contribution of individuals instead of systems- for good or bad results), the structure of the organization (hierarchy with vertical departments/silos) and a belief in technology as a solution to problems. The result is termed "administrative evil" where the leaders truly think they are doing things to help the organization when their actions in reality are creating cultures of fear and causing harm to many in the organization and to those they are supposed to serve. Most hospitals and academic medical centers are good examples of this.

The Walking Photographer said...

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The Walking Photographer