An eyebrow-raising headline from this very paper on Tuesday morning: “Election peaceful despite shootings, ballot snatching.” This was the assessment of various police and election officials of the nationwide voting for local barangay (village) positions; other than a handful of murders, at least one public school being used as a polling place being destroyed by arson, most of one entire town in Mindanao being unable to have an election because of poll workers refusing to show up for safety reasons, and a couple dozen reports of illegal campaigning and voting fraud, the whole thing went pretty well.
The perspective reminds me of an incident from my past life in the automotive industry. At an annual national conference of parts and service managers from hundreds of dealerships, our manufacturer’s national logistics manager stood in front of the crowd and assured us that, as far as corporate guidelines were concerned, an 85-percent success rate for the national distribution system in filling dealers’ parts orders on time was considered acceptable.
The reaction to that was a near-riot, naturally. The typical automotive dealership operates on a razor-thin margin in a ferociously competitive business, and when a car that represents a significant chunk of a customer’s yearly income is sitting lifeless in the repair shop due to a lack of parts, that customer is going to have a problem—and he’s not going to have that problem with an anonymous pencil-pusher in a giant warehouse on the other side of the continent; he’s going to have that problem with the poor slob on the other side of the counter in front of him. Doing the job right 85 percent of the time was clearly not “good enough,” and faced with the outrage of the very people the automaker relied on for its continuing revenue stream, the head office had no choice but to rebuild the entire distribution system, starting with replacing those who did not have a crystal-clear understanding of how important it actually was to strive for that elusive “100 percent.”
One hundred percent is virtually impossible, of course. There will always be things that go wrong despite everyone’s best efforts; bad weather delays a delivery, someone falls ill and can’t make it to work, or the computer system breaks down. The realistic approach is to accept that something unexpected will happen sooner or later. Accepting that eventuality, however, should not lead to a revision of standards. A failure is a failure, intended or not, and if the organization is honest about its objectives, the foul-up requires a proper exploration of its causes and possible solutions.
Every election in this country, however, is met with the same “good enough” attitude, and it is reflected in continuously degrading organizational performance. An election is, after all, the process by which the government entity is created; if that process is flawed, its end product will be flawed as well. Under ideal circumstances, the few inevitable problems that would arise in managing an election across a large and diverse country with 50-odd million voters would result in a government that is less than perfect but still workably productive, because those responsible for managing the elections would be constantly striving for improvement. But when only “good enough” is the goal, each successive election is a little worse than the last because the problems that occur are not seriously investigated and corrected in between. Monday’s local elections, for example, were carried on despite the fact that there are still serious questions about roughly eight million votes from last May’s national elections that simply vanished.
That is why it is not particularly surprising that the same discouraging problems—like an airport that can’t seem to shake itself loose from being at or near the top of “the worst airports in the world” list, a judicial system so slow as to be practically nonfunctional, and poverty levels that never change—keep being recycled through the news. “Good enough” discourages innovation and effort, and encourages a certain level of diffidence toward taking on big issues. Instead of answering the painfully obvious need, not to mention the angry demand of the people, to undertake a big job like overhauling the country’s badly compromised system of government finance, for instance, legislators pretend they are working by engaging in trivialities. An embarrassing example of that made public just this week is an utterly ludicrous bill filed in the Senate by Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. proposing criminal penalties for restaurants and canteens who refuse to serve customers half-orders of rice, as if that was an actual problem that existed. Never mind dealing with critical matters like developing a reasonable mining policy, rationalizing investment incentives, or encouraging job creation—what’s really holding the country back is Pinoys’ annoying habit of not cleaning their plates before getting up from the dinner table.
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Speaking of cleaning plates, a number of people have e-mailed or sent text messages to me to ask about my “choking incident” last Saturday night at a rally for our local barangay candidates. Yes, that really happened, and yes, it was terribly embarrassing to discover that my momentarily forgetting how to chew and swallow food properly suddenly resulted in completely cutting off my air supply. Thanks to the rapid reaction of newly elected Barangay Captain Kent Salvador, however (and congratulations to him, by the way), a quick and effectively delivered Heimlich maneuver restored me to a normal condition in just a moment, with no lasting ill effects. The unfortunate incident is a good reminder, not only for me but for anyone who may find themselves in the company of other people eating food, to look into learning or refreshing our basic first aid skills. The Philippine National Red Cross regularly conducts first aid and other safety training courses; if you’re interested, and you probably should be, contact them for more information at http://www.redcross.org.ph.