The Fundamental Fuck-Up

 Company Culture #10

I was new at the insurance company, still in my 90-day probationary period. I'd been doing office work, though, off and on anyway, for almost forty years. The software varies, and different places have different rules and procedures, but office work is office work, so I was a newbie, but not really. I asked questions, took notes, and did the work with no major and few minor screw-ups. 

Even in my first few weeks, though, while I liked the company and the people, I recognized that something was… off.

We audited policies that the New Policy Department might have input wrong, and corrected their mistakes — a lot of mistakes. A crazy lot of mistakes.

There are input errors at any job involving data entry, but at this place there were more mistakes than I'd seen in any office anywhere. Something was wrong with almost half the policies we audited — an error rate perhaps twenty times anything I'd seen in any other job.

Zeke was the weirdest person on my team, not counting me, and he had almost a fetish for making corrections and getting everything right, so he was the person I went to with my questions. After a few days, I said to Zeke, "How can the New Policy team make so many mistakes, and nobody gets fired?"

"Wise question, grasshopper," he said. "It's our job to catch mistakes, and their job to make mistakes." He'd told me that joke a few days earlier, so I didn't smile, and he explained that it wasn't a joke. 

"In any system for doing anything," he said, "if people can make the same mistakes over and over again with no penalty, people will make the same mistakes over and over again."

I shrugged and said, "Well, yeah." 

"'The Fundamental Fuck-Up' is what I call it," he said. "It's the boo-boo that causes most of the other boo-boos." 

Then Zeke explained it to me, and now I'll explain it to you. It's not inherently fascinating, so I'll simplify the details, but please stay awake through the next few paragraphs, because Zeke was right. This is 'the Fundamental Fuck-Up', and pertinent to the whole story of our workplace.

If we found a major screw-up (wrong price, wrong agent, etc) we'd send the policy back upstairs to be reprocessed, and as we created that memo, the software would ring up an error against the New Policy Department. They didn't want errors, so they were careful and rarely got the price or agent wrong.

If we found a minor screw-up, though (the customer's name is misspelled, the address is wrong, etc) we'd fix it and mail the policy — but that didn't count as an error, or even as a correction. There was no tracking at all, of how many names and addresses we fixed.

That's what Zeke called the Fundamental Fuck-Up. With no feedback when they got the name or address wrong, names and addresses didn't matter to the New Policy Dept. That's why names and addresses were a constant clusterfuck.

OLSEN might be typed OLSON, WILLIAMS might be WILLAIMS, and if your name was VARDOUHI DZHABRAYAN a typo was guaranteed. 27th STREET might be input as 29th STREET, or 27th AVENUE. Apartment numbers would be left off entirely, which made mailings undeliverable. On and on all day long, the processors made myriad little but crucial mistakes like that.

"Damn, that's a stupid system," I said to Zeke, and went back to work again.

Not ten minutes later, I audited a policy for someone named HEBE — at least, that was the last name that had been entered. It was obvious from even a glance at the application, though, that the person's surname was HEBER, not HEBE. That's worse than a mere typo, because 'hebe' is an ethnic slur for someone Jewish, nearly the equivalent of the N-word for blacks.

I showed it to Zeke, just for a laugh and commiseration, but he was aghast, and photocopied the application and took it to Daniel, our boss. I was uncomfortable complaining about some other worker's mistake, but Zeke couldn't be stopped. I stayed at my desk until he returned, several minutes later.

Drama, man. I hate drama, especially at work, and I'd never ratfink another employee.

At our next weekly team meeting, Zeke asked Daniel about "the HEBE situation," and you don't often hear slurs in an office meeting so that woke up the room. Zeke had to explain to the younger workers what HEBE means, which I found encouraging. Maybe the next generation is less assholey? Nah, more likely they just have different slurs that I haven't heard.

Daniel answered that he'd spoken to Darcy about it, and today I can't even type 'Darcy' without cringing, but that was the first time I'd heard her name. She was the manager of the New Policy Department.

Zeke sneered and said, "You discussed it with Darcy? You might as well discuss it with Darcy's desk." 

Daniel frowned. "Darcy was concerned, Zeke, and she told me she'd speak to the person who processed the HEBER policy. And please, we can discuss these things in a respectful tone."

Zeke apologized, but after the meeting he gave me his un-asked for opinion of Darcy. It wasn't respectful. 

"I've dealt with her for years," he said as we walked back to our desks, "and she doesn't give a damn."

"Zeke, I don't give a damn, either," I said. "It's a job, that's all."

"Bull," Zeke said. "When you see a mistake, you correct it. That's all I mean by giving a damn — and she doesn't."

There was no stopping Zeke once he started talking, so he went on for a few minutes, explaining several of the many ways Darcy was evil and incompetent. I didn't give a damn about whether Darcy gave a damn, though. She wasn't my boss, and I'd never even met her, so I listened to Zeke but didn't really hear.

There's only one thing he said in that conversation that I remember clearly. "Remember when I said the Fundamental Fuck-Up is that they don't count errors when the processors make errors? Darcy is why."

That afternoon it was just Zeke babbling, but a few years later, after Zeke had died and Daniel had been promoted and Darcy became my boss, yeah, I remembered what Zeke had said.

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  1. Unrelated :

    I had a dream about you last night, Douggles. You and I were sharing a house owned by a relative of mine. Just visiting the house, I think. All I really remember is us in the kitchen, the ceiling started leaking. We went upstairs, and you had clogged the toilet, which overflowed. But it wasn't overflowing with shit, it was overflowing with copious amounts of cooked Ramen noodles.

    That's it. Psychoanalyze THAT one, Siggy Freud!

    1. A beautiful dream, man. Was I wearing pants?

      Lots of ramen in our lives in the 1990s, as I recall. I had one of your leftovers from a few years ago a few months ago, but other than that no ramen since a few decades ago.

    2. Yeah, we both had pants, as far as I recall. Damn shame.


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