Probing the Limits: I Can't Not Try

September 1, 2004
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A priceless trait that is critical to high-quality, safe products may tragically be a social affliction.

The phrase, "I can't not try" is poor English, but it is a powerful quality concept that an associate of mine coined a few years ago. I use it all the time, despite it being a double-negative.

The "I can't not try" concept means that even though I wish I did not care when something is incorrect, and therefore not have to deal with it, I am unable to restrain myself from taking on the issue and trying to make it better.

Here is one example of the "I can't not try" trait. A coworker says to me, "Scott, that scrap is costing us a lot of money, but it isn't in your department and it is not your responsibility to fix it. Why don't you blow it off like everyone else?"

I reply, "I'm really busy now and as much as I would like to blow it off, it just bugs me too much to see that going on and not try to make it better."

Only some people have the "I can't not try" in them. These are the people that have issues that eat at them, even when they are not responsible for them. They just cannot stand to see something wrong go unaddressed, even if they are not accountable for it. A high percentage of quality professionals have the "I can't not try" in them and that is one reason I enjoy the profession so much.

It is my feeling that most of the general public does not have the "I can't not try" in them. These are the people that can observe a serious problem and say, "it's not my responsibility" or "I don't care if it ships in that condition, my boss said it would be OK to ship it that way. I'm not going say anything if no one else is."

I really admire people that do have the "I can't not try to make things better" in them and I like to surround myself with these people. Most of these people consider this attribute more of an affliction or curse rather than an admirable trait, though. These people that "can't not try" to address problems also understand another associated phrase called, "getting run over by a freight train."

"Getting run over by a freight train" usually occurs in a group-think situation where many people in the group know something bad is happening, but no one wants to speak up. If you are afflicted with the "I can't not try to fix it" trait, you just can't keep your mouth shut like everyone else and you say what no one else is willing to say. Usually, what happens is that everyone turns on you, calls you an alarmist and you get verbally assaulted as if you were being run over by a freight train. On some less frequent occasions, though, the group is relieved to have someone say the unspeakable and a tragedy is averted.

"Whistle-blowers" are familiar with "I can't not try" and "being run over by a freight train." Whistle-blowers are people that use inside knowledge from an organization and make it public to expose a potentially dangerous situation where people could be harmed. The sad thing about whistle-blowers is that even though they are a tremendous asset to public health, their personal lives are usually run over by a freight train. Research on whistle-blowers confirms that they usually suffer significant negative personal consequences for their actions.

In response to my July column about a series of quality system breakdowns that lead to the death of a young family at a bridge construction site, I received many emotional e-mails. Many of those e-mails told of quality managers they knew, and respected, who stood their ground on quality or safety issues, and as a result, were disciplined or fired.

Why would anyone stand their ground on a safety or quality issue that would lead them to be fired, disciplined or hit by a verbal freight train? The answer is simply because it is the right thing to do. Not doing so is the wrong thing to do. Going through life doing the right things rather than the wrong things is what life is about and that is more important than maintaining employment at a company that does not understand this. People that "can't not try" to do the right thing understand this. Thank goodness that many of these people are in the quality profession. I hope these people are the quality managers at companies that make products that my family's health and safety depend on.

Are you a person that "can't not try" to do the right thing? If yes, send me an e-mail. It would be an honor and pleasure to get to know you.

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