The water company engineers story

April 2, 2010

The story of the water company engineers has always interested me. I expect most of you have heard Dave speak about his project with the special book under the counter where water company engineers would meet for breakfast, talk and of course write in the special book. Those arriving outside chat time would be able to both read and update entries in the book.

While this story intrigued, it was for me very much someone else’s experience and I have even heard amongst CEers (if I may collectively call you that) some voice of skepticism over the details – well, stories get elaborated over time don’t they?

But recently I was privileged to experience one of these sessions at first hand – and it wasn’t even a consulting engagement. I have been transporting my wife on occasions to a few places in the UK. She is currently suffering from two independent medical problems that make driving (and even travelling to some extent) very difficult but it is important for her to travel as she is just beginning a new and exciting job role in her company and she is getting medical treatment so doesn’t want to stop now. So I have on occasion been working from hotels and/or cafes (in Leicester I have three places that are extremely friendly and give me a seat with a powerpoint, 3G dongle connection to the internet and let me stay working as long as I like. In one place they bring me coffee and even look after my gear when I need to use the toilet).

This particular morning I was working from a hotel and I decided to walk down to the local out of town McDonalds to have a breakfast. When I arrived I noticed that a large area of the restaurant (this is McDonalds word for it – I struggle to say restaurant within the context of McDonalds) was full of engineer looking guys (no girls sorry) making quite a bit of noise but obviously full of friendship, chat and tease. Sitting quite near them I was able to pick up on what was going on. They were doing exactly the type of water company story stuff (although I didn’t see “the book”). There were detailed reminiscing of previous disasters, older chaps teasing the couple of juniors (on one case about mishandling a tool and resulting mess) there was talk of horrible bosses, bad and good customers, good and bad jobs as well as football, what they did the previous evening with the kids and so on.

But to me this was clearly an important gathering. I have no idea how often they did it (although in retrospect I should have just braved going up to one of them and asking) but having just started some study on eco-systems and fitness landscapes I couldn’t help connect what I was studying with what was going on during breakfast. In his closing speech at the Singapore conference Dave spoke of “design for resilience”. At the time my first thought was the term “robustness” – there seemed to me something remarkably robust about the whole environment I was witnessing at this breakfast. Robustness here would include a confidence that occasional staff losses would not destroy the companies engineering effectiveness and a high degree of confidence that the engineers would be capable of using this network to successfully tackle previously little known and complex job problems. There is also the appealing thought that as a result of the social environment the engineers may actually enhance their job satisfaction and show an increased degree of tacit commitment to the company and their customers.

Not having noticed it coming into the restaurant, I was quite surprised on my exit to notice 8 company vans in the car park. As I walking out to the pavement I noticed two more driving in.

Yet this does not at all diminish the importance of traditional education (engineers like this have academic learning as well as apprentice based learning) and ongoing training (new legislation, equipment, safety and so on) or even work practice manuals. But something I find quite inexplicable is the impact of hard-headed efficiency bigots within management or worse their consulting companies that would see this as (1) a complete waste of company time. Surely the engineers should be actually at a job. And now mobile computer systems can allocate jobs on-the-go with optimised routing and expected job-completion times then engineers need never worry about the existence of other engineers, at least real people ones. And (2) an opportunity to do knowledge management properly and have the engineers (in their vans using the above mentioned mobile technology of course) enter into the system all their knowledge that can then be shared by all engineers (and be monitored by the above mentioned efficiency bigots or their clients).

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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