Avoiding Deferred Maintenance by Embracing Discomfort
I have noticed recently an increase in the amount of conversations focusing on vulnerability and how leaning into conversations that may feel uncomfortable for some is healthy. Because avoidance of these types of deeper level conversations can be a direct barrier to strategic planning, I thought that I would use an example of an incident that happened 40 years ago to illustrate how having difficult conversations could have prevented what was almost a catastrophic event.
Near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in March of 1979, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI) suffered from a partial meltdown of one of its reactors. There were many factors involved, but the incident began due to some failures of non-essential systems which cascaded into a series of events that led to the partial meltdown, radiation leaks and subsequent health effects.
There were a number of factors involved in the failure, from poor training to flawed design, but the common themes throughout ranged from inadequate communication to a lack of transparency about the reality of the situation.
In this instance, the impact was literally at the nuclear level. The radiation that escaped from the reactor could have been stopped or limited by quicker action and better team communication among the workers at the plant, while the long-term effects could have been reduced had employees not struggled with internal politics, a fear of retribution or the general protectionism that individuals feel when they bear responsibility for something and it has gone wrong.
I see this type of thing happen a lot in organizations. There is a feeling of wanting to get along or that if something has happened that might have a negative impact, there is a tendency to defer or deemphasize it because it creates less friction.
There is a concept in the built environment called “deferred maintenance.” It’s sort of a euphemistic way of describing something that you know needs to be repaired or improved, but you move it to a future phase of work. The danger is that, oftentimes, deferred maintenance becomes “never got to it” maintenance, and then there is usually a big and expensive problem that is now urgent. Well-formed solutions, which could have been developed and implemented with enough advanced warning, are now no longer options. What is left is the most expedient and (sometimes) most costly solution.
When you avoid hard conversations about the factors involved — the contributing environmental, infrastructure, monetary or political realities — you are creating a deferred maintenance scenario. The more it is deferred, the fewer options are generally available. Sometimes the decision is made for you, and it might not be the one you wanted.
In the case of Three Mile Island, some of these deferred decisions and actions led to literally decades of cleanup and mitigation, detrimental impacts to the surrounding area’s ecosystem and population and a dramatically altered view on a potential energy source.
If you can create a culture that rewards urgency, transparency, open communication and teamwork, you will have gone a long way to prevent deferred maintenance in your organizations. By being vulnerable and building an understanding of the importance of bringing matters up and dealing with them directly and expeditiously, without fear of retribution, an organization has the freedom to expand, learn from its mistakes and evolve without the hesitation caused by the adverse effects of the behaviors listed above.
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