December 18, 2012
Having a pub lunch the other day, I received a call from a well-known courier company. I explained that no-one was in at home. The driver said that my parcel would be delivered next morning. He left a card with details of the delivery. I waited. The parcel didn’t arrive.
In the afternoon I received another call from a lady to say that delivery would occur the next morning. I waited again without success and eventually phoned at about one o’clock. I spoke to a chap. He asked for the consignment number. This was a handwritten, long string of numbers and letters on the card; about twenty in all. I read them out.
He couldn’t find my parcel in his system. He said can you give me the barcode; a separate much shorter number. I did. He still couldn’t find my parcel. Finally we discovered that I was misreading the lower-case letter ‘o’ in the consignment number as zero. This was because it was cleverly disguised. All of the other letters were capitalised.
He found my parcel in his system and said that delivery had not been rescheduled. He said he would schedule it for the next morning between eight and one o’clock. The parcel arrived the same afternoon at about four o’clock. Fortuitously and fortunately I was in and accepted my delivery thankfully, without comment.
This kind of thing is commonplace. It is called incompetence; and it calls into question how the world ever works.
A friend of mine is having a frustrating time in getting some money of his transferred from a Canadian bank account into his Australian bank account. I mention this because, in my experience, bankers are overly representative of incompetents.
For example, after the end of last financial year, I had to deal with someone at Bankwest who seemed incapable of understanding that a bank statement dated 28 June for my superannuation savings deposit account would not satisfy my auditors as to the state of my account as at 30 June. Mysteriously, she said that the only way I could get an end-of-month statement was to have statements sent to me on a monthly cycle, rather than on my current six-monthly cycle. In the end I just acquiesced; it was easier.
So how does the world work? It works because competent people tend to gravitate towards occupations and roles where failure is critical, transparent and attributable (e.g., navigators, tug boat captains, surgeons, aeronautical and civil engineers, cabinet makers, bricklayers, and many more) while incompetents more than proportionately fill occupations and roles where failure is non-critical and hard to pin down.
There are many examples of these kinds of occupations – politicians clearly fit the bill, so do bankers, public servants, magistrates and judges, academics, financial planners, real estate agents, retail sales staff, and administrators and clerical staff most everywhere. Of course not all of those in these occupations are incompetent. But the likelihood is that they have a greater share of incompetents than among airline pilots; for obvious reasons. That is why you are delighted when, say, a postal employee gives you anything out of the ordinary in good service but you think nothing of an airline pilot landing smoothly.
If you want to test my theory of prevalent incompetence start ordering long black coffee from your local cafe. Drink it unsweetened. Nine times out of ten (that’s generous) it will be too watery or too strong or too bitter.
Sure the barista can make you a latte, or cappuccino, or soy flat white, or even a short black to which copious sugar is added. They are all heavily adulterated with non-coffee substances which hide the deficiencies of the coffee. Most of the time baristas exist in a similarly forgiving and murky world as do bankers.
Unadulterated long blacks bring them into the unforgiving and transparent world of airline pilots and they usually “crash and burn”.
Peter Smith, a frequent Quadrant Online contributor, is the author of Bad Economics
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
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