What Were They Thinking? Or Were They?

Designed to Produce the Results You Have


As an industrial engineer, I find myself forever looking at things from a process perspective. Will this be usable? Will it make the objective harder or easier to achieve.

Here are a couple of examples from my neighbourhood where someone didn’t have the whole picture in mind. Both made the sidewalk fundamentally unusable for anyone with mobility challenges. Wheelchair, walker or baby stroller. It didn’t matter. The result was sidewalks that were impassable if you stayed on the hard surface.

The question that comes to mind is why? It is a question on several levels. But let me rephrase it from “why”, because why is often not very enlightening. It puts people on the defensive.

  • What was the training of the crew that meant they didn’t see the problem?
  • What was the nature of the supervision that the crew  didn’t feel they could raise a question?
  • What was the directive to the contractor – or what was in the contract – that the organization wasn’t prepared to go back to the city to identify the problem?
  • What happened that the designer wasn’t willing or able to go to the site to see whether what was on the design would work in practice.

All these questions and more. As a manager, you cannot tell where the failure is, just from the physical evidence. But for my bet, I would guess that several things conspired to create these issues.

  • The workers have either been ignored or chastised in the past when they have raised issues of design stupidity, so why would they bother this time.
  • The contractor has learned that the effort to question the designer is so onerous, or the response is so slow, that the company will be penalized for drawing it to the city’s attention.
  • The designer has 94 other projects on the go and gets the distinct impression from her boss that a field trip is just her way of getting out of “real work.”
  • The city has no standard system of hand-offs when information goes from one person to the next that is self-diagnostic when there is a mistake.
  • There are no checklists of the things that must be considered when designing a sidewalk or impinging on an existing sidewalk.

In other words, the system is set up to deliver these results. And only by rethinking at least some of the processes will we get different results.

If you are a supervisor, and you’re getting results you don’t want, the lesson is look at how the system or process is set up to deliver the results you have. Because that is what is happening. Your system is designed to produce the results you have.

We need parking signs

Who needs a sidewalk?

Street light pillar

Is this what they designed?