Believe in nothing, no matter who says it, even if I say it, if it does not agree with your own experience and your own common sense ~ Buddha

I’d like to tell you all a story. It’s about a strange little world, the oilpatch. It’s a rarefied world; the lingo is strange, the people insular, and outsider interference shunned. So this story must necessarily have subtitles. I apologize in advance, for I find them clunky.

I had a consultant (that is, site supervisor) once; his name was John. He was one of those old-fashioned, never-say-die bootstrap type of men that grow increasingly rare over the years. He would never shut down unless there was no other way around it– he was safety conscious, thankfully, but he pushed us hard. I remember working one winter day– it was so windy that the metal-and-plastic liner from a nearby tank farm (still under construction) blew away. Only then did we shut down, and I think it was only because he was afraid of someone getting hit by debris. But that isn’t my story.

Tank farm with steel berm and polyvinyl liner

Tank farm with steel berm and polyvinyl liner (The silver ring and the plastic attached to it blew away, making it like a large, silver frisbee. The tanks were not in it at that point.)

Like I said, he hated to be shut down. We were here to work dammit, and nobody was making money when we’re all cooped up in the hotel. It was April. It rained. BUCKETS. We had seven inches of water on location. We couldn’t move the rig, couldn’t get equipment in. All we had was my tandem vac truck and some local farmer’s Case tractor.

I’ll say this for John, he didn’t shirk. He wasn’t the type to give ridiculous orders and walk away. Nope. He’d give ridiculous orders and stay and help carry them out.

After all that rain, we thought, “Great, three days off at least.” Because it would take at least that long for the water to run away and the ground to dry out. We were on an alkali flat; I was raised in the area, and told anyone who would listen, the alkali ground is like a sponge. It holds the water. If it’s sunny it will form a dry crust on top, but don’t trust it. You’ll break through and sink like a stone. Like I said, we were off for at least three days, probably a week.

This is not my vac truck, but it is almost identical. It's considered small as these things go, but she was all heart.

Apparently, John wasn’t listening to my wise words. The next day, he was out there, digging drainage ditches by hand (remember, no heavy equipment). After trenching and channeling all he could, he called me, with my vacuum truck. I sat on the road and sucked out puddles for a whole day. 100 ft of mud-coated 4″ hose is really freaking heavy. And when I couldn’t reach any more puddles from the road, John said, “Drive to the other end and we’ll suck out that really big puddle down there.” I said, “No, I’ll get stuck.” And John said, “You won’t get stuck, and if you do, we have this tractor right here, we’ll pull you out.”

So I drove in, got stuck. But since I was already there, I sucked out some puddles (ha! these were lakes). Then I was full, and stuck. The farmer came, hooked up to me with chains, and pulled me back to the road– and John sent me to unload, then come back and do it again. For THREE DAYS we slogged, hip deep in mud, sucking up pollywogs and mosquito larvae.

I’ve never seen anything so dumb. In the patch, though, this kind of behavior is to be expected. The show must go on, and anyway, what are you complaining for? You’re getting paid.

In the end though, it’s why I got out of the field. There was too much — well, cover your eyes, this is the official technical term – dog-fucking. By focusing on productivity, and not on, say, the most efficient use of resources, or most economical, or (hell, let’s go crazy)–how ’bout the simplest way to do things, this attitude creates a culture where you must work, regardless of the cost/benefit ratio. Furthermore, there is no incentive for efficiency, for the longer you work, the longer you get paid.

There are exceptions. Walter Chrysler said, “Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way to do it.”

Sure, John was being creative in finding ways to keep working–not the smartest way, perhaps, but he was thinking about it. When I was trained on a vac truck, I was thankful to be trained by a tiny, wiry little guy who found creative ways around the limitations of his size — vaccing can be tremendously physically demanding– and taught them all to me.

In fact creativity can be the ally of efficiency, at times, provided you use the right metric. As above, if the culture emphasizes the time spent working as the proper measure of productivity, it’s unlikely to stimulate change for the better. But if least effort were the metric– then we’d see a shake up.

The trouble with cost/benefit analysis is that it depends on what it’s comparing. Too often, new ideas get blocked because no one will invest the time to develop and test them properly. New people aren’t hired because it takes too long to train them. And far too often, it’s easier to just carry on the way you were because of the ridicule associated with trying and failing.

Persistence pays. Failing well pays. The next lease I saw John on had a backhoe trenching around it and creating drainage ditches while the sun was shining. And the next time it rained—guess what? We never shut down.


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