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Incompetence at the Top

It's quite amazing that hundreds of postal workers at the privately owned UK Post Office were wrongly prosecuted or convicted between 1999 and 2015 for alleged false accounting, theft and fraud, because of a glitchy software system that incorrectly showed money missing from accounts. The defective Horizon accounting software was designed by Fujitsu and had plenty of problems, a bit like our Canadian accounting software Phoenix that for years had to be corrected manually so people received the right pay.

The Post Office maintained for years that the data from the defective Horizon computer accounting system was reliable while accusing branch managers of theft. In 2009, the trade publication Computer Weekly reported the claims of flaws with the Horizon software. Amid mounting pressure from the media and lawmakers, the Post Office began to investigate the issue, but in 2015, the CEO Paula Vennells told a parliamentary committee that there had been no evidence of any miscarriage of justice. 

What the Post Office bosses didn't realize was that Fujitsu employees could go into any post office terminal and change the figures without the sub-postmaster in the town ever having any knowledge of their entry into the system. If the lawyers for the 700-plus employees had known this, there would have been far fewer incarcerations. Many victims of this miscarriage of justice spent time in jail while others went bankrupt, saw their marriages destroyed and some died before their names were cleared.

This is another example of how very large organizations lose complete control over their own empires, due to the ignorance of the people at the top. When there are too many V-Ps and underlings, the CEO is no longer in command of the vessel. In recent weeks, we have had Boeing CEO David Calhoun admit mistakes and apologize for the loose door plugs on the Alaska Airlines flight. Nearly 200 planes have been grounded since the cabin panel blowout that forced a brand-new airplane operated by Alaska Airlines to make an emergency landing in Portland, Oregon. Calhoun earns a $22 million salary and bonuses but hasn't got the time to go on the shop floor and kick ass among his quality control inspectors. What is going on at Boeing? Remember the 737 Max aircraft was grounded back in 2019 after two crashes in the space of six months that killed 346 people. 

The same goes for the CEO at the Post Office, Paula Vennells, who received a salary and bonuses worth some £5 million during her tenure. Vennells has admitted making mistakes and acknowledged this in her mea culpa: "I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted."

The lesson here is clear. You cannot run a business with just a nice smile for shareholders and nary a visit to the shop floor. A CEO has to get down figuratively to the nuts and bolts, kicking the tires and examining the product from top to bottom. The loss to Boeing's reputation and the public hatred of the British Post Office is the result.