October 1973, March 1975
I first became aware of the importance of errors as strategic events for seeing the authority system in action when I worked in the bindery in Boston. I was involved in a whole series of error situations there which were costing the company a lot of money, and I had to defend myself. It got more and more difficult to do, i.e., my credibility got less and less even though I am convinced that none of the errors were my fault. So this is again the whole question of defensiveness, paranoia, not being able to accept criticism, not being able to admit that you are wrong, not being able to acknowledge mistakes, and so forth. Those in authority (or those who act as if they are in authority) are always quick to blame subordinates, rather than beginning by looking at the situation to see what happened and how the error might have happened before assigning blame.
The same thing is happening now at the Child Welfare League. The secretaries take a lot of flack about all the things that go wrong and 75% of the time it is the fault of the consultants themselves (the `professionals'). They are constantly bemoaning the low standards in the office but the quality of their own work is atrocious. Terry has been doing a good job of standing up to them, which shows the utmost importance of `defense,'' especially in a hierarchical system.
The interesting thing about errors, and in work situations errors are a constant, daily, ever recurring experience, is that some talking back is permitted. That is, these error experiences are like little trials to determine who is guilty. They have to be conducted because the error has to be corrected. If a subordinate discovers the source of the error and it stems from the superior, the superior is forced to back down, even if not acknowledging it openly. But everyone knows who was to blame.
There is an awful lot here that I want to dig out one of these days. The following three points will have to serve as a start.
(1) The ignorance of the bosses is usually very apparent. The fact that it is the persons who are actually doing the job who usually know the job best is very clear. This shows, among other things, the inefficiency of bosses and of work organized by bosses. They only get in the way. They slow down the work process.
(2) Very often a worker will have known all along about an `error', but had no responsibility to do anything about it. Initiative is in the hands of the bosses. Workers only do their own narrowly defined task and do not have any responsibility for the overall task. So if something goes wrong which is not strictly a part of a person's job, nothing is done about it. This is even true often for breakdowns of machinery and work processes within a given job, since repairs are the responsibility of the foreman.
(3) Dealing with errors forces collectivity. The boss and the workers have to communicate on other than an order-giver/order-taker basis since the boss has to ask for information from the worker, has to seek the help and knowledge of the worker to uncover the source of the error (assuming the worker has denied responsibility and more is happening than simply the command from on high to get it fixed; and even here a foreman, or some other representative of management will be there with the workers to see that it does get fixed). (October, 1973)
I have been convinced for a long time that struggles at the workplace should be built around those situations involving judgment. I first got this idea at the bindery in Boston in the long series of disputes with my immediate foreman about a long series of errors, each of which seemed at first to be my fault but which I succeeded in proving to be someone else's error. (Sometimes my argument sounded preposterous at first. On the last big case I was involved in the foreman asked me, ``Well, what's your story this time?'' When I told him he looked at me in utter disbelief, but it turned out to be true.) Then I started noticing the place that errors occupied in the work process in general and the key opportunities they afforded for challenging management's control over the work process, and of developing workers control.
The `judgment' factor is central in a number of other areas too, for example, (1) work procedures in general, (2) job evaluation (evaluation of job performance), (3) discharges, (4) all regulations, (5) physical layout, especially when there is a move and things are being set up anew.
Actually there is no area of work that does not involve judgement, but some are more strategic than others, e.g., disputes over who is at fault in an error, disputes over job performance in general (level of output for example), disputes over firings, and disputes over work procedures and the organization of the work (division of labor and job definition). (March, 1975)