Philosophy 101 and the Utility Executive

A utility executive friend of ours said something that shocked us the other day. This is an upper level management type – you know, private office, personal secretary, reports directly to the senior officers of the corporation. Part of the job is representing a regional division of the company to local and state officials. Part of it is customer affairs. We’ve known this utility executive for years. Very professional, hard worker, responsible, very likeable.

Here’s the statement that shocked us. “You know, it seems that the biggest part of my job these days is fixing things. I go into the office in the morning and there’s always a problem I have to fix. It’s always some dumb mistake that could have been prevented if somebody just thought something through.”

Now, to some extent, dumb mistakes by other people do create a certain degree of job security for our friend. But “fixing” after the fact is always aggravating, usually costly, and all too frequently does little to resolve whatever actually caused the problem in the first place.

Utility Executive Philosophy 101

Thinking about mistakes and their causes sparked memories of our Philosophy 101 course and the theory of Aristotelian Causation. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Aristotle described four degrees of causation in nature. As an example:

  • The material cause: “that out of which.”
  • The formal cause: “the form.”
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest.”
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.”

Now a couple millennia ago, Aristotle never had occasion to come across a gas main, or dream of a utility grid. Nor did he have the benefit of Fault Tree Analysis or Boolean Logic. But when it comes to what it might take to “fix” everyday utility problems, he might have been on to something. Let’s take another look at the four degrees, this time in reverse:

  • Final Cause: aka The Purpose
  • Efficient Cause: aka The Plan
  • Formal Cause: aka The Process
  • Material Cause: aka The Person

The idea that “Cause” in a complex system is often complicated and multi-layered should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever recited “For Want of a Nail.” That treatise on military logistics has been around since the 14th Century!

More recently, and closer to the utility business, the Three Mile Island accident provides another object lesson. In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explains how an entire industry was ultimately crippled:

“No single big thing went wrong at Three Mile Island. Rather, five completely unrelated events occurred in sequence, each of which, had it happened in isolation, would have caused no more than a hiccup in the plant’s ordinary operation.”

We could go on citing even more recent examples, like the Deepwater Horizon disaster – at least 6 documented “Formal Causes,”1 with several postulated Material, Efficient and Final causes thrown in for good measure.

Our point? For any utility executive who finds himself almost constantly “fixing” mistakes, it may be time to consider diving more deeply into his Aristotelian Causes:

Final Cause

Are your Vision, Mission and goals clearly articulated? They may make surface-level sense to your utility executive brethren, but do they make sense given changing demands of all your stakeholders?

Efficient Cause

How’s your Plan? Up to date? Well-defined? Comprehensive and inclusive for “All Hazards”? Valid, workable Trigger Points?

Formal Cause

Got glitches in your software? OMS working well, even in 70% outages? Mutual Assistance, Staging Area/Base Camp agreements in place?

Material Cause

Got buy-in throughout the organization? People well-trained in using your plan? When was your last real drill? “Mistakes” don’t have to happen. Just take a little Philosophy 101, and call us in the morning.


1 A depiction of the possible causes of the blowout of BP’s Macondo well and the explosion and fire aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, based largely on the joint investigation of the accident by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the Coast Guard and a separate investigation by the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

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