Show Me the Dead (or How We Forget Why We Manage Risk)

In my neighborhood, there is a very dangerous stretch where buses and trucks speed downhill. A couple of times I have had scary moments with a bus or truck breathing down my bumper, honking and flashing lights as I slowed down to exit the road.  Some of the psychotic bullies drivers in charge clearly do not care about the 50KPH speed limit of this zone. It also does not help that every now and then, somebody knocks down the very road sign that is supposed to be warning motorists about speed.  My neighbors and I decided to approach the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), which is responsible for approving the erection, modification and removal of speed bumps. It is illegal for anybody else to do anything about a speed bump on the road – you should drive or walk over it…and keep going, no looking back please. We figured we would like the NTSA to erect some bumps because no driver, crazed as he may be, can ignore two or three bumps placed at good intervals. Further, we would like this to be done before somebody dies on the entrance of our zone. Sounds simple, right?

Everything went well until the NTSA informed our representatives that for this request to be considered we need to get some statistics on the accidents that have so far occurred in that zone. Ignoring the obvious look of “huh?” on the faces our esteemed reps, NTSA helpfully advised us to talk to the police because the police normally show up at the scene of the accident and they would have records of fatalities.

When this was relayed to me, I slapped myself to confirm I was not asleep and yep, I was alive and awake. If NTSA logic is to be followed, we should wait for some deaths on this part of the road before we can do anything. The more the deaths the better, I suppose. They do not want near-misses, they do not care that somebody even had video footage of the vehicles zooming past, overtaking dangerously. No sir, they need hard solid evidence. One wonders, why stop at accident statistics? While we are at it, why not ask people to come with the skull bones of the victims? I have newfound respect for the bureaucrats at NTSA. Genius, really.

Enough ranting. Now let us think of management of risk and the interplay with management information. How often do we wait until a risk becomes a real issues so that we can react? We cleverly run our businesses using information, drawn from data and that is as it should be. Sometimes though, we get so stuck on taking actions based on information and when that information is not there, we run into some sort of paralysis that can only lead into problems. I sure hope that most business are not run like NTSA but I would not place a high bet. I think there is a place for quick action based on self-evident situations. Not every problem needs to become a data mining challenge. I would go so far as to claim that there is still a place for going with the gut feeling. We are, after all, engaged in entrepreneurial pursuits and we cannot have all the ducks lined up all the time – sometimes we have to accept some blind spots.

We can also consider what NTSA was thinking when this requirement was originally crafted. I don’t know the inside story but it I suspect like all things that go awry, NTSA started with good intentions. It must have gone like this: using accident statistics, identify areas prone to accidents and then determine if there was a speeding issue or other cause that can be addressed using bumps. Somehow, as this was passed down, it may have evolved to: for us to construct speed bumps, we need accident statistics. An indicator that should be used to promote safety was now flipped and it became a blocking pre-requisite which, unless satisfied, demands that the dangerous status quo is maintained. Even in CSPs we see the same – we begin with a way of working that was intended to fix things but the implementation down the line becomes a hindrance to business itself.

There is yet another angle to this illustration, obtained from my knowledge of the legendary lethargy of Kenyan public service sector as a daily consumer of mediocre service. This one is even more ominous: when we do not want to take an action, we procrastinate under the guise of waiting for information. If I had a dollar every time I heard: Let’s review the situation in 2 months’ time, we shall see how the challenge has evolved.

Meanwhile, in order to give an acceptable answer to our good friends at NTSA, we are looking for volunteers to drive downhill on my neighborhood road with the sole intention of getting crushed by a truck so that we can build some statistics and prevent more deaths. We shall compensate your loved ones handsomely, after the police show up of course (which is anywhere between 3 years later and never).

Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu
Joseph Nderitu is a consultant who specializes in revenue assurance. He is currently contracted as Head of Revenue Assurance and Fraud Management at Vodacom's operation in Tanzania, having previously served in the same role at Vodacom Mozambique.

Before his work with Vodacom, Joseph was an internal audit manager for Airtel, with responsibility that covered their 17 countries in Africa. Whilst at Airtel, Joseph led reviews of the Revenue Assurance, Customer Service and Sales & Marketing functions.

Prior to his stint at Airtel, Joseph was an RA manager at Safaricom in Kenya. He holds an MSc Degree in Information Systems.