Wednesday 21 July 2010

Management: Rules vs. the Impossible

A municipal project took place a few years ago to expand the subway system. During the 2 years of construction, I witnessed an interesting phenomenon which gave this article its title.

Expanding the subway system involved the digging of tunnels around a major intersection. During the tunnelling, traffic had to rerouted several times. This rerouting entailed the setting up of concrete barriers to divert traffic first to one side of the intersection then to the other depending on where the tunnelling was taking place. Standing at a window in a tall building beside the intersection, I could watch the flow of vehicles forced into lanes which lead the vehicles around the areas of construction.

During this time, I was out on a major highway when I ran into a traffic jam which brought everything to a dead halt. As I sat in my car, I turned to a local radio station in an attempt to find out if there was an accident up ahead causing the back-up and whether or not I would be better off to just get off the highway altogether. As I debated with myself what to do, I was looking at my limited options as the next exit, although in view, was still a bit of a ways up the highway. Getting to it would mean I would have to drive on the shoulder for quite a distance; something I figured was not kosher and was probably worth a ticket.

All of a sudden, beside me first one, then two then three cars go driving by me on the shoulder. Obviously, they had concluded that waiting for the traffic to clear was not the best bet and had decided to take matters into their own hands by using the shoulder to drive to the next exit to get off the highway. I looked around me. I could see no police so even if this action contravened the traffic laws, there weren't any policemen at the moment to enforce those laws so in essence, and anybody could do what they pleased without any fear of reprisals by the law.

Later on the same day, I was back in the tall building overlooking the intersection where the subway tunnelling was going on. I looked at the concrete barriers and how traffic was being diverted. The barriers were forcing traffic to go somewhere; anybody in a vehicle had no choice but to follow the lanes defined by the concrete barriers. I thought about the people driving on the shoulder up the highway to the next exit to get off the highway and avoid sitting in the traffic jam.

It occurred to me that we, society, have set up laws to define a certain behaviour we collectively find acceptable. You drive on the highway, not the shoulder. This behaviour is defined by law and if we do not ascribe to this behaviour, society enforces the law by handing out tickets, punishing the offender. However, as noted by the absence of police to enforce the desired behaviour, people will do what they want even if this behaviour is by definition, illegal.

As I looked at the concrete barriers, I realised that people were physically prevented from doing anything but what was defined. They couldn't drive on the shoulder because the concrete barrier prevented them from going anywhere but in the defined lane. Even if there were no police, the driver of a vehicle could only go in the prescribed route. There was no way somebody could contravene the law; it was physically impossible.

What a curiosity. On the highway, we have a situation where we hope people will obey the law: do not drive on the shoulder; always drive in the designated lanes. We know they do not always do so and consequently, we have to have police to enforce those laws. At the intersection, at the subway construction site, people are physically stopped by the concrete barrier and can only go where they are told to go. No police are necessary; no law enforcement is necessary. Physically, you cannot break the law.

Are there other areas of life where we can see such an idea? No policing is necessary; people are physically prevented from breaking the rules. That seems simple. If I want you to write with a blue pen, I only have to take all of your pens away and just give you a blue one. Now you can't write in any other colour because you don't have another colour pen.

Unfortunately, it seems, as I reflect on this, that probably for the most part our lives are governed by rules, not physical limitations. The rule is to drive at 100 km/h but I am not physically prevented from breaking the speed limit. Consequently, society has the police to enforce the rule. Hmmm, if we had cars that physically couldn't go any faster than 100 km/h...


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