“If it is not written down, it does not exist.”
Philippe Kruchten – Academic and software engineer
If it is not written down it didn’t happen. Now that’s a big statement.
Does this sound absurd?
Is it the truth?
Many years ago, I was listening to a recording of oral family history. It was claimed by a distant cousin that her father (my great grandfather) met the bushranger Thunderbolt (bushrangers were outlaws and highwaymen) as a young boy. Thunderbolt arrived unexpectedly early one morning on his father’s small land holding in the New England district of NSW. The story goes that Thunderbolt joined them for breakfast and while having breakfast he kept looking nervously out the window. Thanking them for their hospitality he gave them a gold sovereign, mounted his horse and rode off. Not long afterwards some mounted police arrived. Apparently, this occurred in 1864. When I checked the dates, I found that my great grandfather was not born until 1866 and Thunderbolt was in jail in 1864. Although the event probably happened, it did not happen in 1864.
There is business lesson here that should not be under estimated.
My advice is to write down and record the most important things.
If a legal issue arises, the written word is far more reliable than someone’s recollection. It is important particularly with issues of people management and workplace health and safety.
Let me give you an example.
As a young manager in my mid 20s, I was managing a concrete plant in Canberra. The fleet of owner drivers continuously threatened and intimidated me. It was an unusual situation when looked at through today’s eyes. The drivers were independent businessmen, who owned a concrete truck. This was the same for four other ready-mix concrete companies also operating in Canberra. Despite being businessmen, the owner drivers were all members of a trade union. With the union’s assistance they restricted the number of trucks operating, thereby restricting competition and increasing the rates they could charge.
It was a business cartel restricting competition. It was not a legally or government sanctioned cartel such as taxi plate licences. The construction industry was booming and the capacity to deliver concrete was restricted, adversely affecting the construction industry. The situation deteriorated to a point where driver’s representative in our business tried to tell us when and to who we could deliver concrete.
This was clearly illegal under the Trade Practices Act. Businesses were not allowed to collude and restrict competition and increase prices. This “arrangement” was adversely affecting our customers. On several occasions I was confronted and threatened. Having some knowledge of the law and knowing that this ‘arrangement’ was probably illegal, when threatened I quoted back that what they were doing was illegal. I then noted it in my work diary.
More than three years after I had left the business, I received a call from the company’s lawyer. The new CEO had decided to use Canberra as a test case to initially overturn the “arrangements” and then use it as a precedent in the state of NSW, to break up the arrangements there. Luckily, I had kept my work diaries and when called as a court witness, was able to quote the times, dates and conversations. The company won the court case and the cartel arrangement that had been supported by the union was quashed.
This outcome demonstrates the importance of recording events, as the diary entries were one of main reasons the court case was won. Too often in business, we are busy and fail to record important events only to find out later, that they should have been. The ready-mix drivers’ case was an important learning experience for me.
Employee issues such as performance management and safety requirements are areas which are important, and discussions and events must be recorded. Our memories cannot be relied upon as we cannot remember dates, times and actual conversations.
The Thunderbolt story illustrates the unreliability of oral history and memory. As managers, writing down important things is not optional. Many of us hate paperwork, however it is an essential part of our job.
What should you as a manager be recording?
Where should you file these records?