To act or not to act in clichés?

Modern technology is designed to make life easier, in part by its ability to allow us to be more flexible with our time. It is simplicity itself to press a button on the remote to record on the hard drive that programme that you would like to see, but for one reason or another are unable to watch when it is broadcast. The main problem is that technology doesn’t give us any more time. We are still stuck with 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week! So, the recorded programmes build up until it becomes necessary to watch the ones you really want to watch and delete some that you are not as enthusiastic about, without having watched them. A couple of years ago, I pressed play on a recorded programme only to be told that I could no longer watch it because the TV channel that had showed it no longer existed. You didn’t encounter this problem with VHS tapes! That is another ever-increasing challenge with new technology – you are no longer in full control but at the whim of faceless organisations. But that could have a full article to itself, so I’ll return to my original story.

Having a couple of days to spare at home at the end of my summer holiday, I took the opportunity to clear some of the backlog of recorded programmes. I should point out at this stage, to avoid my image hitting complete rock bottom, that the programmes I record and keep are usually documentaries or factual programmes that only I am interested in; sport has to be watched before I hear the score and light entertainment/drama is watched sooner as part of a larger audience.

The story of the Ebola outbreak and subsequent impact and response was fascinating. The key lesson imparted is that action needs to be taken early, even if there is limited information available. This programme and other programmes I finally got around to watching, like the one on the final days of the Vietnam war and a number of recent historical events, illustrate the predisposition that humans have to avoid making a difficult decision in the hope that things will resolve themselves and remove the pressure to act. If you act, you immediately leave yourself open to criticism for any negative consequences of the action, even if that action solves the immediate problem. It also means that a successful action is judged in the light of the problem at the time of acting and not what it might have become, like the Ebola crisis did, if you didn’t act. If you don’t act then it is not your responsibility if the situation deteriorates, it is just the way it is. Even then, there may be some mild criticism to be received at a later date.

There is a certain amount of irony in writing about the importance of taking action. Maybe I should have created a YouTube video instead to illustrate the point. But there are any number of written quotations to support my original thesis: actions speak louder than words; behaviour is the strongest form of communication; it is not what you say, but what you do that counts; walk the talk; practice what you preach; better to act and ask for forgiveness than ask for permission. But then conventional wisdom also says: look before you leap; fools rush in where angels fear to tread; act in haste, repent at leisure. Nothing is ever simple where humans are concerned.

If you look carefully at the last three sayings you will notice that they do not imply that you shouldn’t act, but that you need to pause to think before acting. In NDT, we need operators who will act. Operators who will speak up if the job is not prepared correctly. Operators who will report a defect even when they know the report will not be well received. As a safety activity it is important to act early, but the action needs to be based on an assessment of the key information that is available. The PANI project showed that operators as a group are cautious, but the better operators are not over cautious. Looking too deeply at signals can make the decision more difficult. In conclusion, consider the information, identify and address the risks and then act. Or, to end on another saying: hope for the best, plan for the worst.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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