Safe to Assume?

“You know how that word is spelled, don’t you?”

~Base Commander, Fort Sill

Dateline: Houston, Texas, USA: another one of those sad stories about a workplace fatality. This one happened to someone assigned to move pipe stacked in a storage yard. One of the blocks of wood supporting the pile broke; the pile collapsed on top of the person in harm’s way.

Being a fatality event, it’s safe to assume there will be an investigation. You can assume the investigation will examine the condition of the wood blocks that supported the pile, the size and arrangement of the pile, the ground, and how the pipe was being moved. It’s also safe to assume that something will be found to have been amiss to explain what went wrong.

Unless this was an act of God.

Those have been known to happen, but they’re few and far between. When things go wrong, it’s always better to assume there were more simple and explainable causes: those causes are ones that we humans can actually do something about.

As opposed to hoping and praying it won’t happen.

A Moment of High Influence©

People make assumptions all the time. They just don’t necessarily recognize that’s what they’re doing. Go back and re-read the first section of this edition of the News: there are four assumptions made in the first four paragraphs. At least each one was stated and labeled.

Attaching a Warning Label to each might not be a bad idea, too.


July 4. 10 am, Saturday morning. Lawton, Oklahoma.  A very hot Saturday morning. I’m sitting in the bleachers, watching what’s happening.

As to what that was, this was not the kid’s Saturday morning T-ball game. The bleachers are at Fort Sill. Two hundred of us – Air Force ROTC cadets – were “invited” to come watch the Army Artillery’s Boom Boom Show: an amazing display of the capacity of field artillery weaponry to wreak havoc on the enemy. Talk about bombs bursting in air!

But with no hearing protection: this was 1970.

Around here, we call those Moments of High Influence. If you’ve read the book or taken the course, you know exactly what they are. If you’re scratching your head because you don’t, send us an email and we’ll give you the lowdown.

What came next proved to be the even bigger Moment, at least for me. The post event speech about the lessons learned. Coming from the Base Commander, a Full Bird Colonel, as we used to say, back in the day. Doing the math upwards of half a century later, he was old enough to be my father.

“Men….” he intoned. This was the US Military, 1970. Not exactly a boy’s night out, but you get the point. There was a war on.

“….There’s a big lesson to be learned from this display. It’s essential to survival on the battlefield. Never assume anything!”

The Colonel went on: “You know how that word is spelled, don’t you? A S S U M E. When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”

Fair to say, that message left an impression. A lasting impression.

Assuming That…..

People make assumptions all the time. Which of these is safe to assume?

  • A car approaching a stoplight will stop when the light turns red.
  • A car approaching a pedestrian crosswalk will yield right of way to a crossing pedestrian.
  • As a train approaches a grade crossing, the signal will activate and the crossing gate will close.
  • A handrail will support the weight of the person holding on to it.

I’m sure you know the answer. I am in possession of hard evidence to prove your answer correct: each one of these assumptions has been proven wrong. Each time, making that assumption wouldn’t just make a fool of the person involved. Those assumptions could have – and have – claimed the life of a person in harm’s way.

You know that. Everybody knows that. But knowing that doesn’t stop people from making assumptions. That’s a problem. The more serious problem is that people don’t just make assumptions, they rely on those assumptions.

I could stop at this point, and simply close this edition of the News with the advice, “So don’t. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t rely on assumptions.” It’s good advice. Put into practice, the world would be the safer for it.

But, I’ll assume that nobody will do that.

And not just because I am not a Base Commander. Or a Full Bird Colonel.

Relying on Assumptions

As good an idea as it might be – relying on assumptions really is not a good idea – put completely into practice, assume nothing, and you might not even make it to work in the morning.

Alarm clock? Be sure to have a backup. Food safety in the kitchen? Call the Department of Health for an inspection before eating breakfast. Vehicle safety? Check under the car and around the wheel wells before backing out of the garage. Check the brakes before getting on the road. Out on the road? Monitor every car that approaches every intersection to make sure it stops. If you slow down to do that, check in the rear-view mirror to make sure the driver following you notices you’re slowing down. They’re probably assuming you aren’t.

As a practical matter, you have to make and rely on certain assumptions. Otherwise life would grind to a halt.

The problem is that every time you rely on assumption, you can wind up being proved wrong.

What do you do about that predicament?

For openers, how about being smart about the assumptions you make? Some assumptions come with greater potential consequences than do others. Miss the alarm, you could show up late for work. Miss that car that’s not stopping at the red light, you could show up in the emergency room.

Good habits and practices can make it safe to rely on certain assumptions. Clean the kitchen counter after dinner the night before, keep the food refrigerated, and wash the dishes, it’s probably ok to assume you won’t get food poisoning at breakfast. Maintain your car and get it inspected, it’s likely that the brakes will work when you need them.

For some things, assuming the worst is not a bad idea. Treat every piece of wood on the road as if it has nails. Treat every gun like it’s loaded. That way, if you’re wrong, you’re safe. Not the other way around.

And finally, how about simply recognize when you’re making – and relying – on an assumption. “There’s one. There’s another one. And another one.”

You might say, “That’s common sense.”  Someone else might say, “That’s wisdom.”

I say, who cares. Call it what you want, but do something different.

Circling Back

So back to where this story started: the wooden block that failed. Wood has been known to break, splinter, and rot. Knowing that to be true, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to check the blocks regularly, be on the lookout for blocks that don’t look right, and maybe even find something better than wooden blocks to rely on.

Makes perfect sense.

If you’re thinking, “Well, that’s what they should have done” you have missed the point of this letter.

This isn’t about them: it’s about you.

Assuming there’s nothing wrong with that block is their problem, not yours. Your problem is relying on the assumptions you make where you work. Where your followers work. Those assumptions can be proven wrong.

If they are, someone can wind up a lot worse than just looking foolish.

So, what are they?

Paul Balmert
June 2018

Spread the Word

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