Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Price You Pay for Ignorance and Incompetence!

A few years ago, a person who was well known to me contacted me for a professional advice. He had just recently  taken up a top management job in a well known private company at that time. He too was a professional engineer like me and much senior to me. But he knew me well professionally and did not hesitate to show his high regards and respect that he had towards me for the professional expertise that I had in some areas, especially in the field of water and waste water engineering and technologies.

His company had almost taken some decisions to spent some substantial money for improvements in their production processes taking help from an engineering consultancy group. And a substantial portion of this proposed expenditure was towards modifications in their water and waste water systems. He too being an engineer having decades of industrial experience could sense some thing not so okay with the proposal made by their consultants, but was not able to make out any valid points to question the wisdom of the consultants due to his own limited knowledge in this field. So he wanted me to have a look and give my advice.

Over a cup of coffee, I glanced through the consultants' project feasibility report and could immediately find many things superfluous. Either the consultants are not so knowledgeable in this field or they are adopting an unethical practice of enhancing the project cost with unnecessary complexities in the design. Since the consultants' fees are directly linked to the project cost, this kind of an unethical practice is often resorted by some professionals here and there! 

With my experience and expertise in that field, I could immediately assess that there was a scope for reduction of the cost by a few million rupees. I told him the areas where the cost reduction could be effected and he being an experience engineer could immediately catch my points. Later he informed me that he could take up those points with his company's engineering consultants resulting in substantial savings in the proposed investments and also thanked me for my guidance.

In the professional field, especially in the engineering field, substantial sums could go to the drains with no one gaining any benefits commensurate with the expenditure due to the ignorance of those concerned with the investment planning and decision making. Sometimes it could be vested interests, but even vested interests would be able to effect their detrimental acts and proceed the way they want only when there is an atmosphere of general  ignorance and incompetency all around!

This kind of a situation is not rare, but very common in the underdeveloped and developing economies. It is not limited to engineering, but to almost every field of activity. In reality, the reason why the economy is underdeveloped or lagging behind in development as compared to some others can solely be attributed to the general deficiency in the distribution of knowledge and competence among its peoples.

While knowledge and competence can be acquired by education and training to some extent, there is an inherent limit for every individual to the extent to which such knowledge and competence could be acquired. In other words, you cannot forcibly enhance any one's knowledge and competence beyond certain limits! Hence, it is essential that we recognize this fundamental reality first and device suitable systems in such a way that right persons are entrusted with the right kind of jobs and responsibilities. An organization can fail in its mission and objectives even when it has people with desired levels of competence, character, courage and compassion but are all occupying positions haphazardly and not according to their capacities!

Engineering is that profession that has the biggest contribution towards economic development. Therefore, ignorance and incompetence in the engineering field could cause tremendous adverse impact on any economy. Economies where the decision making processes are vested mostly with people having inadequate knowledge in the nitty-gritties of engineering are bound to lag behind in economic development. They are also bound to incur higher expenditure for keeping pace with development elsewhere and to maintain their forward progress.

Engineering is both and art and a science and real engineers who develop knowledge and competency to perform their roles with confidence and perfection emerge only when those freshly trained engineering students get opportunities to practice their knowledge and gain higher experiences.Engineering is also a vast and complex field of knowledge and hence, it would not be possible for any one to know every thing. Engineering has divided itself to various disciplines at the learning stage,because of this. But in reality, every engineer who actually work in the real field of application of their skills gains vast knowledge and practical experience that cannot be taught in formal classrooms! This causes another work related problem. Often, it is difficult for even fellow engineers to fathom the knowledge and skill levels of their own colleagues unless they are very keen to know about it. For managers and the so-called technocrats to function effectively, it is highly essential that they know the expertise, knowledge and potential of the those engineers in their team or teams. Knowing the potentials of others is highly essential for team leaders or top managers to make success.

In all professions, especially in the engineering profession, mentoring is a desirable trait and culture that needs to be understood and practiced for long term success of the organization. Mentoring is the honest practice of helping and projecting peers, juniors and perhaps even seniors. It is culture or practice of making the knowledge and competence of others known in such a way that such knowledge and experience do not go unnoticed. People with deep knowledge and competency often shy away from projecting their capabilities while people having limited knowledge and experience keep working overtime to project themselves always! In such a situation, there is always a likelihood that inferior people in an organization are entrusted with superior tasks and responsibilities for which they are not very suitable. Obviously, the organization has to pay a big price when it happens this way! 

In the small example that I cited in the beginning, it was only due to the fact my senior professional friend knew about my expertise and was willing to tap that source, his company could avoid some wasteful expenditures! I have seen many good technocrats making huge blunders for their organizations just because they had pretty no idea regarding the knowledge and competence levels of their team members creating situations that prevented their teams to deliver their best.

Suppose that you want to make a house of your own. If you are a bit technically knowledgeable in the basics of house construction, construction materials and the markets and if you are prepared to use your knowledge for your advantage there is all possibility that you could make substantial savings in the overall costs for getting your house made and also on the overall quality of your house so made. 

Many engineering infrastructure projects are similar, but much more complex, voluminous and pose various alternatives over which best decisions are to be taken. You could possibly do the best collective decisions and implement the project cost effectively and successfully only when every one involved in the project right from top to bottom have the desired levels of competence. If the team leaders and the key members of the team are those with desirable levels of competency, character, courage and compassion (the 4 Cs) there is perhaps no reason that the projects they undertake not getting successfully implemented. 

Let me cite another example. Electricity and water are burning issues in every modern economy and India is no exception.

Let us consider the set up of a thermal power plant of say 500 Mega Watt production capacity. What could be the cost of setting up production facility of this kind? Depending upon the various factors  the cost of such a facility could vary any thing between Rs 40 Million to 80 Million per MW of installed capacity. That means the overall project cost could be any thing in the range of Rs. 20000 to 40000 Million. This is just an approximate assessment based on costs of power projects completed earlier. The actual costs depends on various factors, the main being the manner in which the basic engineering and the detailed engineering (ie the design and technical specifications) of the power utility, is formulated. If the plant design engineers are knowledgeable and competent and if the decision makers are able to make full use of their knowledge, there is a potential of substantial savings in capital expenditure for achieving the same end result!

Now the cost of power produced by the power utility depends on the costs towards fuel ( coal, oil, gas etc), operation and maintenance (O&M) and the costs towards recovery of the capital with interest and also on other charges such as taxes, depreciation allocations, etc. Imagine the advantage of the power utility that had spend much lower with regard to capital expenses! 

Normally, the cost of the plant is reflected through the Project Feasibility Report as prepared by the project consulting engineers. The project consulting engineers hold the key for reduction of capital costs of a project. If they are ignorant or incompetent, the project completion costs could never be any thing near the costs as was predicted in the feasibility reports. In India, project completion costs often exceed much more than the estimated costs. Project completion time also exceed much more than what was originally envisaged.

Time and cost overruns in projects are routine than an exception in India. This kind of a situation creates problems for fixing tariffs and rates for common utilities such as electricity, gas and water. Often the authorities are forced to pass on the costs of ignorance and incompetence to the common customers or the public at large.

The fundamental reason for this kind of a situation is because of the inability of decision makers to understand the working of professionals as a team. Engineering profession accomplishes results as a result of team effort of scores of specialists with differing experiences and expertise. It is difficult for engineers themselves to understand other engineers working in other areas of specialization. This often results in internal conflicts within engineering consultancy groups, many times affecting the quality of their professional services in formulating projects properly. Often, the constraints of individual engineers are overlooked adding to the problems and multiplying the effect of ignorance, incompetence and vested interests.

Consulting engineers are now required to quote for their services. Their services are also decided based on open market bidding and based on lowest cost considerations! But how could you evaluate the quality of their advise? Again they are required to produce project reports of large scale projects involving billions of rupees within a few days or months. Not enough time to even print the copies of their reports! Did they study the situation and assessed every aspects? Did they get the time to do the essential surveys and studies? Did they get the time to think? No one is bothered. What is required is the project feasibility report and the tendering specifications as quickly as possible. Without these documents, no one can proceed to the authorities for approvals and approvals take years! No one can speed up the time required for approvals. What can be done is only to squeeze the time to study the project details and making those documents. Consulting engineers are forced to produce their reports 'as quickly as possible'. This kind of a situation has downgraded engineering profession to its lowest esteem in recent years in India. Expertise and experience have least importance and value in this kind of a situation and professional ethics is also not talked or discussed any where. In the present environment, it seems that pliable consultants who are too willing to comply with the desires of their clients are the only preferred ones. Others have ceased to exist as engineering consultants for all practical purposes. 

If consulting engineers are forced to produce their reports in the manner described above by those who are positioned to do so is again due to the ignorance of the latter about the working of consulting engineers to a great extent. Again this ignorance causes money to go to drain!

When we moved towards market oriented economy, competition began to play a bigger role in our decision making processes. Time has become a major factor. It is a do-or-die situation. In this process we lost our ability to think wisely. We also lost our ability to honor and respect those who thought wisely and who would perhaps had given us the best advise to save us from utter failures in the long run. A highly competitive environment in a society full of unequal peoples, such as the situation in India, is bound to widen the gaps between the haves and the have-nots. If policy makers are ignorant of this fact then there is no chance for the society getting proper policies to make things in order so that the society progresses properly for everyone. 

The damage due to ignorance and incompetence is happening in all professional fields and engineering field has suffered the most without any one really realising the consequences.

Imagine the situation when an ENT surgeon is posted as the Cardiac surgeon! This is too obvious a situation and perhaps no patient would ever be willing to accept such a thing. Nevertheless, Indian authorities do this kind of misadventures when no one is objecting! One can imagine the consequences!

So what is the solution?

I would only say this much. There is a need to honor and respect knowledge and competence. There is a need to honor professional ethics. Not by simply saying. But doing it honestly.

Unfortunately, engineering academicians in countries like India do not really understand the practical aspects of engineering profession to make any real guidance to their students in the practice of engineering. If I remember correctly, decades ago, the government of India had enacted a law that made it mandatory for all industries to provide apprenticeship training to fresh engineers for at least one year. This law is totally forgotten now and the whole thrust of engineering education has been shifted towards getting people of some employable skills rather than getting a workforce who are competent to undertake challenges of progress and development on a whole some basis and not in isolated pockets of economic activities.

When you do not know how to do some thing properly, you have to take help from others who would then do it for you. But when your skills and knowledge are at lower levels, those who come to help you would demand a high price for the services they render. Or you would not know to whom you would turn for help and advice!

Think of this. Why are the Indian manufacturing units in many areas are shifting their bases to other countries? Why do we have to depend on foreign technology suppliers always? What could have been the cost advantage to us had we knew things better?

How could we address these issues? 

Are we in a position to judge the manner in which our democratic governments address these issues with the help of the so-called bureaucracy at present?

Though there are many kinds of professionals, the ones whose incompetence and ignorance could create some problem to others are the technical professionals such as engineers, doctors, pilots, etc. Obviously, the top administrators, policy makers, law enforcers etc do not come in this category though they play some roles in making the professionals work as non professionals! 

The current practice of ensuring better service from the professionals is by the use of fear and threat of the law. When an error in the working of a professional causes some damage of life or property the law zeros in to some one and tries to punish the individual or individuals with punishments of various kinds including imprisonments.

Thus professionals like engineers, doctors and the like who are have to use their intelligence, knowledge and skills to the highest order for doing some complex jobs which others cannot perform are kept under the threat of the law. They work in an environment of what is called 'work-risk'. 

How could any one enhance a person's competence and skills of doing some work under threat? A person working under fear is more likely to fail than to excel. Fear also makes people to avoid even routine works that they are capable of doing and if possible they would try to escape from such jobs.

I have seen this happening. I know many cases where young engineers are trying their best to escape from such jobs that they feel as complex, non rewarding and having work-risks associated.

Any wonder why the best trained engineers from premier institutions discard engineering and migrate to non-engineering fields of works? This causes those having lesser brain capacities to get assigned to perform jobs that require higher brain capacities!

This does not mean that those who do willful acts of omission and commission are allowed to do their nefarious activities. But even the system of enforcement of rules and the system of vigilance management are also affected by ignorance and incompetence and could create more damage than good in such an environment!  

I know that I cannot do a job which requires an intelligence level higher than what I have. I cannot perform a job for which a higher knowledge and competency is required and my inherent brain capacity would not allow me to acquire that. If I am forced to do such works, I am bound to make mistakes and gross errors. If it happens, am I at fault or the ones that forced me to do it at fault?

This is a complicated issue. It gets further complicated as more and more ignorance and incompetence creep in at all levels.

And imagine the price the society would pay for such a proliferation of ignorance and incompetence!

And what is the probable solution to check the proliferation of this situation from rotting the whole system?

In my opinion our human resource management systems need to be overhauled drastically. The systems of recruiting people and promoting people everywhere needs to change. The method of assigning works and responsibilities need to change. The right man for the right job approach need to be practiced honestly.

So, where to start first? If you have incompetent and characterless HR managers and CEOs it is easier to get the whole systems getting corrupted too quickly. If you extrapolate this logic, it is very easy to to see that a leader with the 4-Cs as the leader of the country, I mean the PM, could do a quick change in the systems if he or she so desires.

Perhaps, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) in India, is advocating for such a thing! And if the majority of citizens of India are not ignorant of this then there is a possibility that India might escape from paying a big price for ignorance and incompetence in the near future! 




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