Of boiling water and hot iron bars

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

“TEACH your garden to weed itself” is an extraordinary solution by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in “Think Like a Freak” (2014). University of Chicago economics professor Levitt and award-winning author cum journalist Dubner teamed up to explain the principle using the justice system in the Middle Ages.

If a judge can’t be convinced that an accused has committed a crime, either for lack of evidence, the weakness of the prosecution, or both, he would recommend that his case be remanded to a Catholic priest who was tasked to put the arm of the accused in a cauldron full of boiling water, if not force him to touch a smoking-hot iron bar.

The procedure is based on a simple premise. God knows the truth and everything under the prevailing circumstances. The Almighty Father will undoubtedly save an innocent person from harm. If the accused is unhurt after the ordeal, he will be declared as innocent and set free. If his arm is disfigured, he will be convicted and sent to prison.

Given this approach, how would you characterize the medieval ordeal in today’s system? If you pose that question to our four leading presidential contenders (based on numerous surveys), you can imagine their answers: Rodrigo Duterte will claim it as “very effective.” Grace Poe will posit “international law is the answer.” Jejomar Binay will say “it’s all political.” And Mar Roxas will tell you: “I’ll give you my answer when I get elected.”


That’s why I can’t wait for the presidential debates to happen. I can’t wait how their respective lawyers will advise them of all possible scenarios that will be raised during the debate. Imagine their likely answers based on this story: Two lawyers go into a restaurant and order two drinks. They get sandwiches out of their briefcases and start to eat. The waiter says: “Hey, you can’t eat your own sandwiches in here!” And so the lawyers immediately trade sandwiches.

You know what I mean here. For lawyers, there are many legal ways to get out of a criminal and/or civil issue and/or a particular situation, no matter how stupid their reasons are. Yes, that’s an “and/or” catch-all provision. Then you wonder why Japan has so many scientists and the Philippines so many lawyers.

But then, how do we get out of the mess when lawyers, rather scientists, rule our jurisdiction? Let the garden weed itself. Let the presidential aspirants come out with their best economic and political platforms and discuss these in a debate on TV.

In the workplace, the principle of “let the garden weed itself” is used when management actively solicits the help of an army of problem-solvers, composed of ordinary workers who are tasked to identify problems and generate the best possible solution. It’s called the suggestion scheme, which can be done by individual employees throwing an idea inside a suggestion box or by teams working separately on certain projects, like a well-oiled Quality Circle.

Imagine a situation where an employee comes to you with a complaint. The best approach for management is to turn the tide and ask the employee: If you were in my shoes, how would you solve the problem given the following circumstances? You can also assign a team to explore solving the issue so that you’ll not be acting as trying to defend a policy. Reframing a situation is one thing that people managers can do so workers understand the issue.

Over the years, the suggestion scheme has been under-utilized, if not ignored, by many organizations for many awkward and convoluted reasons. At times, it comes down to plain ignorance by management. After all, management doesn’t have all the time in this planet to solve all problems in the workplace. That’s where an army of problem-solvers can help.

Given the number of nuisance candidates and political turncoats in our midst, do you think we’d be better off passing them all to a Catholic priest administering the boiling water or hot iron bar test before they file their candidacies?

That, of course, appears feasible, if there’s no such thing as a “priestly rigging” as suggested by another economics professor, Peter Leeson, who discovers the economics of piracy. But that’s another interesting story.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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1 Comment

  1. We seem to have this penchant for putting lawyers at the helm of all-important government departments and agencies. MMDA. DOTC. MRT. COMELEC. LTO. LTFRB. To name a few (or several, that is). It’s translated to public transportation mess, traffic mess, voter registration mess, motorcycle mess, discipline mess, airport mess. These agency heads don’t seem to mind as they continue to come up with schemes as frequent as one changes clothes. I guess we can expect them now to retort – ‘well…that depends on what kind of person we are talking about.’

    Think – opening of intersections and closing U-turn slots (then reversing).Think motorcycle lanes (now nowhere, as everywhere is motorcycle lane). Think bus and private vehicle lanes. Think car plates. Think gigantic posters at the airports that serve to ‘inform’ (and not scare, which seems to be the case). While all these continue, the basics are completely overlooked, which is crucial. Can we get excellent and experienced project managers, professionals to lead the agencies? And not from our government agencies, please.

    “The language of law seems designed to be incomprehensible”, Peter Wallace puts it. That’s how schemes look to be. And how government agency leaders seem to be. Now why aren’t we surprised?

    While all these continue, the basics are completely overlooked, which is crucial.