Today’s Sydney Morning Herald has an interesting opinion piece by Steven Schwarz, vice-chancellor of Macquarie University. His topic is wisdom, and his arguments resonate with me because they align with thoughts I expressed earlier in this blog.
Schwartz gives a few examples of situations where someone has stuck rigidly to rules in the face of all common sense. Some are comic, but the death of teenager David Iredale during a summer bushwalk in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney was tragic. He was short of water and somehow became separated from his two companions. Dehydrating and intermittently fainting, he used his mobile to repeatedly call 000 and ask for an ambulance. However the ambulance call centre staff seemed unable to get past their rule that required locations to be specified by a street address, ignoring the repeatedly-stated fact that the kid was in the bush many miles from any road.
David Iredale may have died regardless of how his distress calls were handled, but that didn’t save the ambulance service from severe criticism by the coroner. The coroner’s report contains no less than five pages of recommended improvements to the the way calls for ambulance assistance are handled. Which brings me to my point: you are mistaken if you think that following the rules when they are clearly inappropriate will protect you from retribution if things go wrong.
Schwartz calls it “wisdom” to be able to distinguish mindless obedience from sensible breach of rules. I think that’s a rather narrow definition of wisdom, but his point is well made, as far as it goes. His focus is on individual wisdom. But what if the rules are imposed by a system that imposes serious sanctions for breach? The wise employee who can see the folly of the rules but is not permitted to apply common sense may just end up in a state of unresolvable internal conflict.
That happened to the captain of the ship which dragged its anchor across Esso’s ethane line in Port Phillip Bay in 2008, rupturing the pipe. One version of the story is told here. Captain Xu Pingfeng was well aware that his ship had potential to damage the pipeline as its anchor dragged in strong winds. However the Port of Melbourne refused him permission to raise the anchor and manoeuvre the ship to safety because their rules required a pilot to be on board, and the pilot had departed from the ship some time before.
Captain Xu was in a no-win situation – follow the rules and rupture the pipe, or break the rules and risk disciplinary action. He followed the rules, and the pipeline failed. But it was indeed a no-win situation for him because he was censured by a court for not breaking the rules in order to maintain safety – a thoroughly invidious position that caused the captain considerable distress at the time and for long afterwards.
So that’s two anecdotes about situations where rigid adherence to rules had really bad outcomes. I hope no pipeline engineer ever finds themselves in anything remotely like that position. It shouldn’t be necessary because as I have noted previously, AS 2885 permits exemption from its own rules (subject of course to careful justification and approval and not done lightly).
But is that wisdom? In this context I think it’s just professionalism.