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Beating the Odds

Does What You Are Doing Matter?

Years ago, a consultant was asked to explain exactly what he did for a living. His story should get the attention of anyone who wants to improve.
A company hired him to study the firm for efficiency. After watching for a few weeks, the consultant came back with some tips. He also had a question.

“Every day in the afternoon,” he told the man who had hired him, “a man walks into the factory and tosses a bucket of water against the wall. Why does he do that?”

Puzzled, the boss promised to look into it. When they met a few days later, the executive had an answer. It seemed that years ago there had been an infestation at that exact spot on the wall, so the company “fixed” the problem by tossing water on it every day.

There were at least two things wrong with this scenario:

  1. Did the water actually cure the issue or merely make it disappear for a little while?
  2. When the infestation was finally cleared up, no one bothered to tell the maintenance staff.
    Had the consultant not asked the question, the practice might have continued to this day: a solution that didn’t work being applied to a problem that had been solved.

Since most of us don’t have the money to hire a personal consultant, we’re forced to examine our own efforts and ask: Does what we’re doing really matter? Does our “solution” apply to the “problem?” Are we working smart, and not just hard?

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” goes the old wisdom. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” This quote, perhaps incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain (speaking of suspect beliefs), applies in your life.

Readers of a certain age will remember holiday weekends of years gone by. In the days leading up to Memorial Day, Labor Day and others, chilling warnings would appear on radio and newspapers. Drive safe, went the message, because we estimate that such and such thousands of people will die in traffic accidents.
The warnings were well-intentioned and no doubt saved some lives, but the cause and effect of the holiday carnage was imperfectly understood. It wasn’t so much that people may have been driving CARELESSLY on holiday weekends; it was that too many were attending barbecues and driving home DRUNK.

In 1980, at least one person in the United States knew only too well that drunk driving wrecked lives. It was Candy Lightner, whose daughter Cari had been killed by a multiple repeat offender drunk driver. In her grief (talk about motivation), Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). The stats that follow tell a story. According to data provided by the Insurance Information Institute, there were almost 44,000 traffic fatalities in 1985, 41 percent of them involving drunk driving. In 2020, the total had dropped to 39,000, of which 30 percent had a link to alcohol. Sounds like progress.

According to Lightner’s website, the media voted her “one of the most influential American citizens of the twentieth century.” People Magazine called her “the Conscience of a Nation,” and books have referred to her as the “Mother of Movements.”

“Over time,” she says, “my efforts helped incite others to action. You kick a few pebbles, you turn a few stones, and eventually you have an avalanche.”

She kicked enough pebbles and turned over enough stones to be credited with saving 400,000 lives. Quite an avalanche.

So if you are throwing a bucket of water against the wall every day, make sure you have a good reason for it.


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