Friday, January 16, 2009

On competence

I was in an examination room across the city at Sloan at the time the USAir jet ditched in the Hudson River, but just a couple hours earlier I was riding Amtrak along the river, watching as it turned from completely iced over upstate to largely open in New York. 

Reading this article about pilot "Sully" Sullenberger, a veteran of the Air Force, certified glider pilot, and union accident analyst, made me grateful, again, that our dynamic economy hasn't quite been able to squeeze expensive experience and competence out of the system. Although it may turn out that Sullenberger made mistakes that put his plane and passengers at risk, I doubt he did, and in any event it seems clear that his response to emergency was masterful. I'm sure struggling US Airways would have liked to have dropped the high salaries of Sully and others like him from their payroll, but the man looks cheap now. How many lives did his decades of experience save? How many lives were saved by the fact that this man could do exactly what was necessary? 

I had already been thinking about a quieter form of competence after having my blood drawn at the clinic. The last few times I've gone, I've gotten the same phlebotomist, and he is exceptionally good. His skills have removed a major source of anxiety from my visits -- I know he will draw my blood smoothly and painlessly, without the multiple failed attempts that can leave me in trembling wreckage before even seeing a doctor. He doesn't get paid any more for being a great phlebotomist. I doubt even that the hospital has any performance metric for nurses and phlebotomists to measure their ratio of success to failure (but maybe they should). He is simply an intelligent man who takes great pride in his work, approaches it analytically, and succeeds at an unusually high rate. I'm so grateful for that.

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