John Henry Redux: A Parable of Disruption
My brother retired from the MBTA (the 'T') in Boston and began a new career as a railroad consultant. Yes, he could build you a railroad spike by spike and then run it for you, but his specialty was a machine that assured that tracks were set at the proper design. Tracks not properly designed, that is, at the correct elevation and curve with the correct underbalance will inevitably cause derailments. A very serious matter. Dave began his railroad career early and by age 22 had a crew of 90 men working under him. He was a pick and shovel guy who grew in his profession to embrace its ever-changing technology. The production tamping machines he now operates had morphed from diesel, grease, and steel behemoths half the length of a football field into diesel, grease, and steel behemoths half the length of a football field controlled by ever more sensitive and complex technology. Railroads from colossal BNSF to small local systems rely on my brother to work his life-saving magic and train others to do the same with these machines.
He was called in to train machine operators at--let's just say --a major urban transit system. His presence coincided with the roll-out of a new set of high-tech tamping machines to upgrade a challenged existing system. The trainees he met in a classroom the first day turned out to be a surly group, many of them longtime 'gandydancers', suspicious of change and especially suspicious of some outside Bozo come in to tell them their business. Dave understood. He was once one of those guys. But the work needed to be done and he believed in what he was presenting.
The next morning, he arrived to start the machine training only to find that his onboard computer had been sabotaged. It would take a day or more to fix or replace the computer and other damaged components of the big machine. He told the crew of would-be operators, "I'll show you what we do when the machine is out of service." They broke out the picks and shovels and pry bars, headed out on the line, and did a day's work the old-fashioned way. Dave calculated the proper design with pencil and paper.
After this rugged day of railroad work, the machine was not tampered with again.
But don't get the wrong idea.
These folks didn't mind a rugged day of railroad work. It validated them. What troubled them was the horrible thought that this reliable experience might disappear and their very sense of worth might evaporate with it. When my brother took them out and showed that he didn't mind a rugged day of railroad work, the gesture changed everything.
Trust. It's something we all bring with us as prior knowledge. Or not and it must be earned. But there is not a more powerful disruptive force than trust and it must be built into the machine.