The Case Against Triage

February 21, 2011
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In an episode of the popular American TV show ER, an alcoholic patient with political connections is moved to the top of a liver transplant list. One of the staff’s doctor’s voices his outrage after catching the patient sneaking in a few drinks prior to the operation. The doctor doesn’t believe that the patient is worthy of the transplant, as he’ll just destroy another liver better served or someone else–i.e., a non-alcoholic.

I often think about that episode and related questions:

In an episode of the popular American TV show ER, an alcoholic patient with political connections is moved to the top of a liver transplant list. One of the staff’s doctor’s voices his outrage after catching the patient sneaking in a few drinks prior to the operation. The doctor doesn’t believe that the patient is worthy of the transplant, as he’ll just destroy another liver better served or someone else–i.e., a non-alcoholic.

I often think about that episode and related questions:

  • Is the hospital enabling the alcoholic’ dependency?
  • Would “tough love” send a message that the individual has to change his behavior–or face death?
  • Is there an incentive for people to cease engaging in destructive behavior if they know that they themselves will have to bear the consequences?

The same holds true for the world of data management. In Why New Systems Fail, I write about how many times consultants have to save the day for their clients–or at least try. When things break bad, organizations often call in people like me to save the day. And sometimes we do. (As a result, some of us consultants have a Superman Complex, although I like to think that I usually keep my ego in check.)

So, we show up and try to fix things. I can’t help but wonder: Are we consultants enabling our clients’ difficulties? Are we really solving their problems?

Note that I am not advocating refusing to do the work that clients are paying us consultants to do. I am simply going to make the argument that, by constantly bailing out employees and organizations with lax data management practices, consultants may in fact be enabling the very problems that organizations are hiring us to solve.

The Usual Suspects

In my experience, most data management and quality problems stem from:

  • poorly trained or lazy employees
  • poor documentation for business processes
  • inadequate internal controls
  • redundant or overly complex internal systems
  • a culture that tolerates errors
  • poor performance management
  • weak senior leadership

In other words, rarely do discrete and external events such as a software bug or rogue end user cause major problems. The seven culprits identified above do not fall into the “easily fixable” category, at least in the long term. As such, the consultant(s) that triage the situation do very little to prevent the same problem(s) from recurring.

In fact, by heeding our clients’ calls, we consultants might even be increasing the chances of recurrence. Why? Because we show that we can often work our magic and return things to normal states without the organization or its employees making any fundamental changes to their behavior, processes, or systems. While consultants aren’t cheap, depending on the engagement, a $200,000 USD cost may in fact be less expensive than changing the organization’s culture or replacing ineffectual CXO’s–much like getting a new liver is “easier” than entering Alcoholics Anonymous.

Simon Says

Look, it’s always tempting to believe that the solution is an external entity, be it a consultant, acquisition, or piece of technology. Why do you think that, particularly in the United States, sales of weight loss products are growing by so much? It’s just simpler to try and find salvation in a pill than watching what you eat and exercising a few times per week.

The burnt hand teaches best. Sometimes, organizations that experience major data management problems ought to try and solve them on their own.

Feedback

What say you? Are there merits of not fixing organizational data management problems?