I recently read an article in the Austin American Statesman that got me thinking. Back in 2007, a trucker, Louis Martinez, was fired from his job for "refusing to drive a truck carrying a load of steel shelving that was stacked higher than allowed and was improperly secured with broken straps." According to the Statesman:
It was the fifth time the company, Safeshred Inc., had asked him to drive an improperly loaded or permitted truck, the Supreme Court acknowledged. After pointing out the safety concerns, Martinez agreed to drive the truck but soon returned after feeling the load shift, the court said, adding that he was fired after refusing an order to return to the road.
Had Martinez chosen to drive the truck and been hurt, he could have sued Safeshred and sought punitive damages based on "the employer's malicious intent in ordering the illegal act," the ruling stated.
But by refusing to drive, Martinez never performed the illegal, and potentially dangerous, act he was ordered to perform. "Thus, allowing punitive damages based on the unrealized consequences of the illegal directive would amount to impermissibly punishing the employer for harm the plaintiff never actually endures," Lehrmann wrote.
So, to recap: employee refuses to do something dangerous, gets fired, and would have been better off if he had just done the dangerous thing and sued for damages after the predictable bad thing happened. Sound familiar?
I've also started watching the 2003 "reimagining" of Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. Within the first two hours of the show, the evil robots called Cylons have completely obliterated all of humanity except for those lucky enough to have been on spaceships at the time of the attack. The survivors manage to escape, but then have no hope and nowhere to go. Nowhere to go, that is, until the main commander declares that he knows where the mythical planete Earth is located and their new goal will be to get there. The goals of the survivors aligned in a relative instant. They knew the path forward and that they would have to toil to succeed.
You're probably wondering where I'm going with this. A couple of days ago I attended a seminar on Agile project management put on by Collab.net (creators of Subversion). The presenter, Laszlo Svalvay spend some time describing the conditions required within a team to make it possible for them to adopt a new planning approach such as Agile. According to Laszlo, the team needs to have experienced a qualifying event. In other words, they need to have experienced a problem big enough to cause them to be able to fully commit to a new direction for their organization.
Those of us working on verification can almost certainly see similarities between the case of Louis Martinez, the human race in Battlestar Galactica, and our engineering teams. In the case of Mr. Martinez, he recognized a serious problem and tried to address it. But because his employer had not yet been bitten by a serious/catastrophic problem as a result of its bad practices, they were unwilling to make the cultural changes necessary to improve safety. And they went further by firing the messenger. That said, if the issue had not been one of safety, is it really so wrong to ignore quality issues if the results have been good? There are always tradeoffs related to return on investment in improving product quality. At some point, someone has to decide where to draw the line.
In the case of Battlestar Galactica, the line was drawn by external forces. And it was up to the "team" to decide how they wanted to respond.
The depressing result of this post appears to be that you have to suffer failure to be able to turn around an organization. As a consultant and coach, I'd like to think there are was to improve without having to deal with a catastrophe first, but even then, if an organization doesn't recognize there is a problem, there is very little that can be done.
Of course, there is always an alternative to working for a depressing organization... ;)