Pay Attention to the Results that Matter

Play pumps is a great sounding idea. Most people reading this blog have clean tap water a few steps away. Over a billion people today still struggle to get water every day. A common method to get water is using pumps to bring up water from deep in the ground.

Some energy is needed to bring up the water and that often mean people (at time wind energy is used). Most sites that are providing water to villagers don’t have integrated energy system that can be tapped to bring the water up – as most of those of the readers of this blog rely on (without having to think about it).

Play pumps had the idea of putting a merry-go-round on the site and letting children playing on it provide the energy. It sounded great and I wrote about it on my engineering blog. Many others found it exciting and funded it with tens of millions (The USA government, Steven Case foundation [AOL founder], )… Which is great.

Frontline, which is a great news organization, went back to look at the success of the program after much fanfare in the marketing of the program. Sadly the pumps are having many issues. The solution does not appear to have been executed well.

Several factors are extremely disappointing. There seems to be little customer focus. As with any enterprise that fails this basic tenet of good management this spells trouble. The maintenance process appears to be completely broken. In our throw away lives maintenance is often a minor project point. For bringing water to those without it maintenance is known to be the primary issue. For decades the failure of program has had this as the primary reason (the possible competition is corruption). Failing on the known largest issue is again extremely disappointing.

And finally refusing to address the issues that are raised is cowardly and makes it seem the foundations are more concerned with fancy press where they can share face time with a former Presidents and First Lady than with delivering water. It is unacceptable to be so cowardly and disrespectful (to those you claimed to care about in big flashy fanfare announcements). The announcements of giving away millions was done with President Clinton and First Lady Laura Bush and Steve Case. When the vast majority of the wells close to 2/3s it seems (sadly they wouldn’t even provide data) are out of service the foundation refuses to even talk to the reporter. After the report they seem to have basically shut down the program and transferred the assets to another charity. Without providing a public explanation of what when on – again extremely disappointing behavior.

I understand people love to boast that they are giving away millions and don’t like being asked about failures to deliver. But it is insulting to refuse to address concerns. It makes it seem they are more concerned with looking good than doing good. It is extremely sad.

Doing good is hard. Doing good in challenging environments is even more difficult. One of my father’s passion was appropriate technology; and I share that passion. It isn’t about making the boss look good by meeting some silly target about how many playpumps can be installed (the story mentions the focus on meeting such targets and that kind of failed management is extremely common).

How can they not be focusing on measuring customer value? The key is getting people water. If improved maintenance is needed – spend money on that. Redesign to the extent possible. If the whole concept just doesn’t work, fine acknowledge that, quickly, and adapt. Put in windmills (hand pumps, or something).

And don’t be seeking chances to gloat about the money you give away and then hide when your execution doesn’t live up to what it should. If you are selling sugar water and you want to play those games, I don’t really care. If you are trying to make the world a better place and instead of addressing issues honestly you try to hide from them, I care a great deal.

The limited facts we have paint a bad picture. They paint a picture of an organization that doesn’t care enough about results and just wants to look good. If you care about making he world a better place you can’t accept the same tired poor management practices others use and keep my respect.

This stuff is far too important to care more about looking good than delivering results.

I have issues with some of what Bill Gates did while he was at Microsoft. But I believe he cares about the execution of the huge programs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

I don’t believe Bill Gates would sit back and allow pumps to not be working for months. I know I wouldn’t. Fix what we have. Make sure that what we have is working. Don’t let those counting on us suffer, so we can focus on expanding quickly. I understand expanding a good solution quickly will help many people. Moving quickly is a good aim. But you should never be expanding quickly (for something as important as this, again with selling sugar water it might be acceptable) when huge problems exist for the current deployment.

Having difficulty deploying a solution that works isn’t the issue. That is to be expected. The failure to follow basic management improvement practices when so much is at stake is extremely sad.

Sadly the quality journalism Frontline offers is extremely rare. There is great benefit to a society from great journalism. We are suffering with the extremely poor journalism practiced by so much of our popular media.

Great job by Amy Costello as the reporter.

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