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Wishful thinking never the answer

Wishful thinking approach can be catastrophic.

Please allow a little latitude here. Hypothetically, let’s assume every 8th grader in your state takes a standardized test near the end of the academic year. The process enables some assessment of academic achievement before students move on to high school. Along the way, there’s some minimum threshold expected of all students.

Before now, there’s never been a serious problem with achievement thus no one has concerned themselves with how state officials administer the exam. That is, all of the exams are collected, scored and subsequently reviewed. However, in 2018 several students in the state fell below the threshold.

Now officials have a conundrum. That’s because there’s no unique identifiers on the exams. There’s subsequently no means to quickly identify the individual students who score poorly. Therefore, education officials now have a pain-staking process of going back through all the exams attempting to unravel the original source of the poor scores. Based on the current system, the process will likely require six-to-eight months to accurately figure out which students fell below the threshold.

By that time, of course, we’re on to a new academic year. As a result, the state’s education officials now must grapple with what comes next. The state prides itself in academic achievement. There’s even talk of NOT advancing all 8th graders to high school. The potential chaos that would ensue from that sort of decision is beyond measure.

Sure, that’s all a ridiculous scenario. But that’s the point. We’d never think about running our education system in this sort of hit-or-miss manner. Standardized exams are an important component of evaluating both students and teachers.

But making that meaningful occurs only because it involves unique student identification on each exam -- thereby enabling us to properly evaluate students, teachers and school systems. Of course, confidentiality is maintained for each student in the process.

My objective here is to illustrate the importance of traceability. If we did operate that way, the outcome may, in fact, be exactly as I described –- we’d witness excessive time and cost associated with identifying key problems and the potential for disruptive management decisions.

To that end, consultant group World Perspectives recently published a comprehensive review on behalf of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assn.: U.S. Beef Cattle Identification and Traceability Systems. The report highlights the following:

“In an increasingly competitive global marketplace, beef industry animal identification and traceability systems are the norm. However, despite being a globally recognized leader in all points of the beef value chain, the U.S. currently does not have robust, nationally significant animal identification and traceability system(s) in place for its domestic beef industry. This may be hampering the industry’s effort, at all points along the value chain, to capture maximum value from:

·         Enhanced domestic consumer confidence and ever-changing demand drivers;

·         Growing global protein demand in new markets, and continued opportunities to differentiate U.S. supply in existing markets, and

·         The ability to better manage, and cushion the shock of, animal disease outbreaks.”

Those are key points addressing “why” traceability needs to continually evolve.

Perhaps the last issue is the most important (and the one which especially resonates for me as a result of a project funded by the National Institute of Justice I had opportunity to work on over 10 years ago). A major animal disease outbreak (e.g. FMD) could prove catastrophic –- that’s true in terms of its potential disruption of commerce continuity, domestic confidence and loss of exports across all industries. In the event of that occurrence, we need to have swift response; that wouldn’t occur today (at least in the beef industry) given the current system.

The reminder of that reality is best represented by a 2016 hearing held by the House Committee on Homeland Security Emergency Preparedness, Response & Communications. The objective was to examine the risk of a terrorist attack (or natural disruption) on agriculture. The key question being, “Are the public and private sectors prepared to respond to these threats?” The committee identified several key vulnerabilities including absence of traceability.

The industry is making progress and the work continues. That’s best witnessed by the presence of the Cattle Traceability Working Group (facilitated through the National Institute for Animal Agriculture) and its efforts to ensure enhancements to USDA’s Animal Disease Traceability program are industry-driven.

Despite some of the back-and-forth around this issue, the “why” outlined above is paramount. Amidst those efforts, I’m reminded of an article in the Harvard Business Review (November 2006) entitled, “Facing Ambiguous Threats.” The authors remind us that ambiguous threats inherently create the most perilous situations for businesses and industries.

In those instances, our tendency is to discount the risk and assume a wait-and-see attitude. We simply kick the can down the road -– and hope the threat never comes to pass. But wishful thinking is never the answer: “such an approach can be catastrophic.”

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