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Opinion: Who should you blame when things go right?

I like to make theories and tell people about them.

“Have I told you about my Janitor Theory?” I’ll ask.

It’s a real theory (real as any of them), based on my brief experience, many years ago, as a janitor at Global Van Lines, off the 5 Freeway at Ball Road in Anaheim. Right behind Disneyland.

It was a three-story building, mid-Century, C-shaped, with a fountain facing the freeway that shot water through a hollowed-out steel globe. I cleaned the third floor. That meant desks, offices and the conference room, making the table shine, wiping the leather furniture, vacuuming and putting the coffee maker back in order. And in those days there was an ashtray at almost every desk.

Anyway, the Janitor Theory is based on the coffee maker, or more precisely the coffee pots. Wash them out, wipe them clean. It’s amazing what vinegar will do. And it cleans out those rings of burnt coffee where the pot sits on the heater.

Except when it doesn’t. Because I forgot to do it.

And that would be the only communication with management. Because the third floor was not clean. Or not completely clean. Because coffee pot No. 3 still had a ring of burnt coffee on it.

That’s what people notice. That’s the Janitor Theory. People rarely say, “Hey, good job emptying all those wastebaskets.”

They say, “Hey, you missed one of the 122 wastebaskets.”

That, according to the Janitor Theory, is human nature.

People focus on the negative, and take the positive for granted. The Janitor Theory makes no judgment on that. It’s not moral, simply observational.

For example, when the lights go out. Like San Diego. Plunged into sudden darkness. You’ve got to ask why? Is it possible a guy in Arizona could do anything to a pair of wires that causes so much fluctuation on the system that the San Onofre nuke plant had to be taken off line?

And scores of questions like that. They have to be asked. We need to know how the systems work, and the plan for when they don’t. My theory says of course those questions will get asked.

Further, the theory predicts we’ll enjoy at least a short list of failures, like this: cellular phone service could not meet demand; people were stranded at gas stations with no way to work the pumps; many stores, lacking power, closed before people could get supplies.

(You should get your emergency supplies before an emergency – not after. You probably shouldn’t even call them emergency supplies, they’re just supplies, if you buy them as you need them. Plan ahead. And that includes realizing that you’re not going to stay on your cell phone for the duration. Plan on a call or two. Oh, and a battery operated radio.)
All of the previous are the human nature questions. The inevitable questions, the ones already being asked.

The theory, however, predicts you’re probably overlooking the second big set of questions. The catalog-of-things-done-well questions. Basically, what went right and who’s responsible for that?

Obviously, some things did go right.

There was no major panic. No civil unrest, looting nor rioting.

Essential services remained in operation, like 9-1-1 and local broadcasters. Apparently, unlike the great Northeastern blackout of 2003, in most cases back-up generating systems worked as intended.

The National Guard went on standby. The airport and Amtrak shut down without incident. The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station was taken offline and powered down according to the book. That’s enough power for 1.5 million average Southern California homes.

So, what’s the deal? Do we have good plans in place? Smart, dependable people to enact those plans?

Because, from a distance, and without hearing from the investigations to come, it appears a lot of people – from the average Jane on the street to the operators of the power grid – did a lot of right things.

It even sounds like, with deep apologies to Grover Norquist, government did its job right.

Government, of course, is the quintessential example of the Janitor Theory. It’s normal to be suspicious of government, and to pounce at the least mistake. But it’s unusual, even when warranted, to acknowledge success, or to give even a passing thought to all the things that go right every day, despite the fact we never think about them.
One final word: Don’t put liquid in the trashcan under your desk. Those liners aren’t leak proof, and a cup of melted ice from a soda is an unwelcome surprise when you’re emptying dozens of them.

Janitors have a lot to teach. That’s a fact.


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