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Posted by on Apr 17, 2014 in featured, Life, Skepticism | 1 comment

Trust, But Verify

This falls squarely in the skepticism field here and it’s actually a shame that I feel compelled to write about it. But another life lesson on the value of skepticism is worth sharing.

This time last year, I was building a house.  Well, I was mostly watching while work crews built it. I annoyed the builders incessantly about everything. In spite of my history (my grandfather built no fewer than 5 houses by himself and supervised another dozen), I don’t know everything about building a house.

Three weeks ago, we had an independent inspector come in to look at the house. The warranty period is nearly up and we wanted to make sure nothing major was a problem. If you ever by a house with a warranty, DO THIS!

Before he even came inside, the inspector wondered how our house passed an inspection. It was that bad.

After doing some research, I discovered that, because of where the house is, some systems had no city, county, or state inspections done. The only area that was inspected was the plumbing system. The inspector found four major code violations (two electrical, one access, and one insulation) and a host of minor issues. For example, the duct work for the HVAC was already coming apart and much of the winter, we spent pouring heated air into the attic.

I happened to know the person who supervised the electrical work. Indeed, he’s a qualified instructor for the electrical licensing process. Yet, the project he was supervising made two MAJOR electrical code violations. While the electrical system in the house works fine, if there had been a problem, it would have resulted in the destruction of the entire property, instead of just a couple of blown fuses.

Apparently, the work crews knew that this area didn’t have a required electrical inspection (I only found out after talking to both the city and county engineers) and cut a bunch of corners  that saved them a lot of time and effort.  Leaving me with a house that was potentially deadly.

After talking to the electrical supervisor and the builder’s construction manager, I realized just how fraught with peril the whole system is. The builder’s construction manager is overseeing the construction of 78 houses (this month) in 5 cities in two counties.  He is also not trained in building codes. I had to get a copy of the codes that the builder claims to follow and show him the requirements.  He asked for a copy because he didn’t have that document. I also had to point out the builders responsibilities in their own contract, because apparently, he’d never seen that as well.

Anyway, he sees each house for about 10 minutes once a week. That’s all he does. Walk in, look around, and move to the next house. The rest of the time is spent managing crews and dealing with homeowners like me, who demand answers and explanations and that he fix issues.

The electrical crews are pretty much the same.

The more our society depends on meaningless metrics for performance and bases pay and promotions on those metrics, the more people try to game the system. In many cases, gaming the system isn’t that bad.  Very rarely does a house burn down due to faulty electrical work. Though, I did hear the electrical guy say  that every time he hears about a house fire involving the electrical system, he checks his work orders to see if he was responsible for it.

But when it does happen, real people are directly affected.

In my job, I realized very quickly that my work directly impacts hundreds of thousands of people. One of the projects I worked on  has the potential to improve the lives of (literally) two million people per year. I try very hard to make sure that I’m not taking the easy way out or to just coast for a bit and hope someone else catches something that’s my responsibility. Even with that, we spend millions of dollars for outside reviewers of our work and even then, not everything gets caught. Then we hear about it in the news.

It’s not a good way to live. I can’t imagine laying awake at night after seeing the news and wondering if shoddy work that I did was responsible for the deaths of an entire family.  I couldn’t live with that.

The conclusion here is that old skeptic maxim, “Trust, but Verify”. I’m perfectly happy with people reviewing my work. First, because I know that’s it’s good work. Second, because if I did miss something, they will catch it and our products are OK.

But there are plenty of people in the world who don’t think like that… and some of them do things that can directly impact your health and safety. It’s worth spending some time and money to verify work and/or claims. Because, the person you’re depending on may not.

  • Rob

    Many people sign contracts without even reading the contract, let alone understanding the terms. Other people sign contracts with no intention of following the terms.

    And, all too often in business, the contract is signed by the manager, then promptly filed. The people who do the actual work never see the contact, have no idea what it says, and no one in the company ever bothers to enforce the terms or make sure their contractual obligations are met.

    People think of contracts as just something they have to sign to get the deal done, and care little for the contractual terms.

    Sorry your new house has such severe problems, but I think it’s brilliant having an inspection before the warranty expires.

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