Remembering Peter -1969

More than 40 years ago. Probably best remembered for the “original, one and only” Woodstock Music Festival and the man on the moon. A lot has changed in the last 40 years, but some of the ideas that came about in that era are still applicable today, even though they have mostly been forgotten.

Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull’s 1969 book “The Peter Principle” received a lot of publicity and recognition when it came out, and interestingly enough, the basic principles still apply today, with virtually no changes required to them.

Probably the best-known phrase that came about from “The Peter Principle” is that people rise to their own level of incompetence. Basically, it means that people will continue to progress through positions of more and more power and responsibility until they reach a level where they are not capable of performing, which is where the upward progression ceases. The lesser-known part of that idea is that when the person reaches that level of incompetence, they should be demoted to their last level of full competence and left there. It makes sense, but it never happens in the real world.

“All meaningful work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence,” said Peter. This also makes perfect sense.

Peter suggested that an employee’s top performance, which he called “super-competence,” is more likely to result in dismissal of that employee than in promotion. This is a feature of organizations that cannot handle the disruption of the status quo. A super-competent employee “violates the first commandment of hierarchical life: namely that the hierarchy must be preserved,” which is as much a symptom of poorly-run modern organizations now as it was back in 1969.

A super-competent employee doesn’t see the relevance or value of the phrase “Don’t make waves when you have the smallest canoe in the pond.” Instead, they press on, trying to incorporate new ideas, new thoughts and new technologies, despite the obstacles put in front of them. They not only question the rules, but they also have an annoying (to management) habit of continually asking ‘Why?” and “Why not?” These are the people in your organization who not only think up ideas but make them known and push for their implementation.

Peter also said of organizational leadership: “Most hierarchies are nowadays so encumbered with rules, policies and traditions ... that even the highest-ranking managers do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace. They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd. Such managers lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.” This seems especially true in large bureaucratic organizations.

Notably, Peter observed that managers who are competent in their roles tend to assess employees according to their output and results, whereas incompetent managers tend to assess employees according to their adherence to rules and policies. This remains a feature of poorly managed organizations and hierarchies.

Also included in Peter’s study was his analysis of a survey of general practice doctors who were asked to list the most commonly encountered medical complaints among “successful” patients. The survey results could easily be found in a survey today, and included ulcers, colitis, high blood pressure, alcoholism, obesity, hypertension, insomnia, stress and cardiovascular problems.

Peter had one quote from his book that is particularly fitting in the world of aviation: “If you can’t ride two horses at the same time you shouldn’t be in the circus.” This is particularly true in the world of aviation, where multi-tasking was commonplace long before there was even an official word for it. I can’t even count how many times I have been “promoted” to a new position with new responsibilities but was asked to also keep my old responsibilities until a replacement could be found and trained ... which never happened.

There is value in looking back at “old” ideas. In some instances, you learn some new things. In other instances, you learn that we really haven’t progressed all that far. Computers were going to change the world and make it paperless. Fax machines would become obsolete. Paper making companies would be put out of business because paper would be obsolete. Mistakes would cease to happen because everything would be computer controlled.

What actually happened, though, was that paper production skyrocketed. Companies began to buy paper by the pallet instead of by the ream. Mistakes not only didn’t go away, they actually increased because computers made it possible to be inefficient at warp speed. Mistakes could now be made hundreds of times more efficiently than ever before.

Forty years. Yes, some things changed. Some didn’t.

Bill Brinkley holds an FAA Airframe and Powerplant certifications as well as an Inspection Authorization and FCC ratings. He is among the first in the nation to receive the PAMA/SAE Aviation Maintenance Engineer rating Brinkley has an extensive background in both fixed-wing and rotor maintenance and processes, including the areas of reliability, quality, configuration management, human factors and maintenance planning. He is a columnist for three nationally-published maintenance magazines, and has been a featured speaker at numerous maintenance and reliability seminars.

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