About the Author

Trained as an engineer and lawyer, David Marx is a social commentator and activist. His concepts for managing socio-technical systems can be seen in the practices of high consequence industries around the world, from NASA to railroads, from airlines to healthcare. Marx has served as an advisor to the Federal Aviation Administration’s human factors program and the Federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality in its quest for a safer healthcare system. Today, Marx is CEO of Outcome Engenuity, a Dallas-based research and consulting practice that educates regulators, organizations and the public on pathways toward a safer world.

An excerpt from Whack • a • Mole


Honey, Will You Wash the Dishes?

Washing the dishes. It’s a relatively simple task, whether by hand or using the dishwasher. The dialogue goes something like this:

Honey, will you wash the dishes tonight?
Yes, dear.

A lot is packed in these two short statements. The first, through the eyes of a lawyer, is the offer. The second is the acceptance. Offer and acceptance. All that remains is consideration—the three elements of a contract. Now, in consumer worlds, the consideration is legal speak for the benefit or payment the doer would receive. Outside of the confines of the marital relationship (where keeping your mate happy trumps all other considerations), the rest of the dialogue might look as follows:

Son, will you wash the dishes tonight?
Two dollars?

This might be the scenario of a dad asking one of his children to take on the duty he has just accepted from his wife. Wife asks husband to do dishes, husband pays off child as the subcontractor. Offer, acceptance, and consideration. The subcontract is in place.

What’s missing in this scenario is the nature of the duty; that is, what is really required of the person who accepts the duty to wash the dishes? We live with literally millions of little duties such as this. We’re not talking about installing an engine on the wing of an aircraft or performing neurosurgery—just doing household chores, daily life stuff. Sometimes the duty is to produce an outcome—to be at an appointment on time. Other times, the duty is to follow a procedural rule in helping someone else produce a desired result. Sometimes, it’s not so clear which duty it is, which brings us back to washing the dishes.

What is my wife really saying when she asks, “Honey, will you wash the dishes tonight?” To my mind, it would seem that inherent in the request lies the duty to produce an outcome of clean dishes, glassware, and utensils.

What happens in my house is as follows: I load the dishwasher, using all of my engineering skills to ensure that each plate, fork, or glass gets the best possible opportunity to get clean. I load the glasses and cups so that they are least likely to tip over and fill with soapy water. I load silverware to optimize the goal of clean utensils balanced against the threat that someone will be poked while removing the utensils (particularly knives). Many people (my wife included) apparently view dishwasher loading as an art, a puzzle requiring precision for all the pieces to properly fit together; for me it’s simply about engineering design and meeting the goal of clean dishes.

So the dishwasher is loaded and washing away. I am on my way to the target outcome, working under the duty to produce an outcome: clean dishes. Then enters my wife. She strolls by the dishwasher, notices that it is still in the wash cycle, and stops. Without hesitation she opens the door. She pulls out the top rack, tactically loaded with glasses and long utensils. She watches, she contemplates, and she makes her move. She starts re-arranging the dishes.

It is deflating when you’re working under the duty to produce an outcome, an outcome that you firmly believe is within your grasp, and the customer (to whom the duty is owed) jumps into your process and starts telling you how to do the job. It’s the reason I don’t jump over the counter at my local fast food burger joint to ensure I don’t get a piece of soggy lettuce with my onions and tomato. It’s socially unacceptable.

There is no Federal Dishwashing Administration telling me that I have to follow the manufacturer’s instructions. While there is indeed an owner’s manual providing written manufacturer instructions for loading the dishwasher, I’m both a guy and an engineer; we’re not that apt to follow instructions on household appliances. We don’t need them. In my professional life as an engineer, I’ve had to follow procedural instructions telling me how to do this, how to do that. All I’m asking for is a little latitude in washing my own dishes. For me, loading the dishwasher is an act of creativity—I get to decide how to do the job so long as I achieve the desired outcome. My wife has only asked that I wash the dishes, and that is what I am doing. My wife can stand in judgment of whether the dishes arrive in the cabinets at the proper level of cleanliness—but it’s my job to determine how I get to that result.

If you talked to two of my younger children, those generally assigned to load the dishwasher, they’d tell a different story. They understand it is not a system of their design. In our house, Mom is the one who designed the dishwasher loading procedure (still unwritten at this point and seemingly, a moving target depending on which dishes are actually dirty), and the kids are tasked with working within the system of her design.

To my children, the duties around loading the dishwasher are procedural. Mom designed the system, the kids (and myself included) simply act as cogs in her grand dishwasher-loading scheme. This doesn’t faze my children; they understand the duty and they simply try to load the dishwasher, following her loading rules as quickly as possible so they can get out the door and play.

But it bothers me; I just don’t understand the duty. Is it a duty to simply produce an outcome of clean dishes? Or is it the duty to follow a procedural rule and load the dishwasher as my wife prescribes?

If I have the latitude to design the system as I wish, I am accountable for the result. The general rule is this: he who designs the system owns the result. If I said to my wife, “Poo-hah with that procedure! I’ll do this my own way,” I had better produce a clean set of dishes. I have chosen to own the system; therefore, I have chosen to own the result. There is no shared accountability here, just dishes that are clean or dirty, an outcome that I own personally.

In contrast, if I agreed to be a cog in my wife’s system, to follow her procedure, I would then be accountable for compliance. Under this duty, I would not be warranting the result. Rather, I would simply try to be compliant and let the chips fall where they may. My wife, as owner of the dishwasher loading system, owns the result. I am merely the obedient husband, accountable only for my compliance or lack thereof. In this situation there is shared accountability; my wife owns the system and I own my behavioral choices within that system. To comply or not to comply, that is the question.

So what happens if the dishes come out dirty? If I’ve designed the system, I own the result. It is up to me to determine why the system failed. It is up to me to make changes to reduce the likelihood of further dishwashing errors. (If I’ve asked others to participate, such as my children, I would look to their compliance within my system of procedures and controls.) I would consider not only my dishwasher loading strategy, but also my behavioral choices within my system: were they at-risk, reckless, or merely human error? Perhaps I should have rinsed that plate with the now baked-on spaghetti sauce. Same for the fork with egg yolk stuck between the prongs. And that plastic bowl with the melted rim? Perhaps it was best to keep it out of the dishwasher altogether.

In the case of my wife designing the system, the inquiry would look a bit different. My wife might ask, “Honey, did you rinse that spaghetti plate before you put it in the dishwasher?” At this point, she’s trying to understand where her system failed. I might respond, “Yes, I took it into the shower with me and scrubbed it for hours before putting it into the dishwasher.” My willingness to follow my wife’s dishwashing procedure, my willingness to participate in the learning process when things do not go as planned—that is where my accountability lies. My wife, the system owner, is responsible for the overall performance of the system, and I, as the obedient husband, am accountable for my decisions within the system of her making.

We make system design choices in one of these two ways. We either take control and ask others to comply, or we delegate an outcome and leave the system design to others. Think about this in the very simple and straightforward area of giving directions. Half of us prefer to be in control, asking only for the address so that we can determine our own way to the dinner party. Others prefer to get specific instructions; turn left here, turn right there. In many areas of our lives, it’s often just a matter of preference. In some areas, particularly in high-risk industries, it’s critical that personal preference not rule the day.

In high risk endeavors, such as flying a commercial airliner, working within a surgical unit, controlling the switching station for two commuter trains, or monitoring a nuclear power station, recognizing which duty you’re operating under is critical to the outcome. Just ask those who lost loved ones in the American Airlines DC-10 accident over Chicago. This accident demonstrated clearly when a well-designed system of procedural controls will do better than merely asking employees to find their own path to the safe outcome.