Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Downton Groton

No, Downton Groton is not a new American spinoff of Downton Abbey
The state of Connecticut recently spent a spectacular amount of money to install new highway signs on I-95 through Groton, and this is one of them. There are two things you may notice on this sign. The first is that there is a letter missing from the word "Downtown," and the second is that it's behind a tree.

I'm going to give the highway department the benefit of the doubt that they are planning to remove the tree, but that still leaves the type-o.

When I taught driving, I attended a conference in which a speaker explained that, for an accident to occur, generally at least two or three things had to go wrong, and sometimes more. For example, if someone simply ran a red light, it might not cause an accident, but if someone ran a red light and the person coming the other way had just sneezed and their brakes were worn out, then an accident happens. Had they not sneezed, they would have seen the car in time to avoid it.

I feel like the story of this sign may be similar. I don't know how modern highway signs are made, if they are digitally produced or made by hand, but either way, there was some kind of design and production process, and at least one person either digitally or manually applied the word "Downton" to this sign, failing to notice the error.

Then, someone had to load it onto the truck. I've seen the trucks they were taking them off of to mount them. These signs are too big to pile into a big box, so someone had to load the signs onto the truck and would have seen every one. Probably more than one person given so large an item. None of those people noticed the error, or, if they did, they either did not say anything or they were ignored.

The truck then arrived at the installation point, and, again, someone or someones would have been involved in mounting the sign. They either did not notice the error or noticed and did nothing.

Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of highway sign construction procedures, it seems like between 5 and 10 people were involved in not noticing that the word "Downtown" was misspelled on a sign that would be seen by tens of thousands of people every day.

Now, of course, it will need to be fixed. I am told that it cost $12 million to install the signs from the Thames River to the Rhode Island border, and I can only imagine what it will cost to replace this single sign.

Any one of almost a dozen people could have noticed the error and corrected it before it was installed, probably saving state taxpayers many dollars, but none did.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, this particular highway sign is not terribly important, but it does raise the very important issue. Sometimes people in seemingly inconsequential roles may be in the position to notice very serious errors. Too many organizations do not create a mechanism to allow them to get their message up the chain of command to fix the issue before it is too late, or they make it so unpleasant to do so that the individual will say it's not their problem and let it go by.

Is that what happened here? Who can say. But it does remind us all to look at our own organizations and wonder if there are process failures that could allow a serious mistake to make it all the way downton without anyone catching it.

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