How Secure Is Your Business? What Are Your Top People Telling You?

In the months that followed September 11, Bush ordered a bunch of undercover audits of airport security. 783 were conducted. The results, according to an article I saw in USA Today, indicated an amazingly high level of incompetence. The president’s investigators were able to carry knives past screeners in 70% of the tests. They got guns through a third of the time and simulated explosives through more than half the time.

Even to someone as cynical as I, these data are disturbing. Considering the incredible mess that had been made out of the boarding process — the endless lines, the ridiculous shoe-search procedures, the idiotic refusal to profile in searches — even your grouchy author had been led to believe that the weapons-aboard possibilities had been cut down to below 20%. What does this tell me? Not that I should desist from flying.

The chances of getting hijacked or simply blown up in a plane are still infinitesimally remote. I fly as much as ever. But when I fly now, I often spend time thinking about how screwed up the operations might be in the many businesses I work for. I recollect the benign but blank expressions of the airport employees who took my bags, patted me down, and asked me those two too-dumb questions, and I compare them to the visages of people closer to my pocketbook.

The similarities — at least in the dullness of the eye — are unsettling. More unsettling is the recognition that during the months that followed the attack, government and airport officials were assuring us repeatedly that they were taking every possible measure to maintain safety and that traveling was indeed as safe as could be. Some of them were making this speech out of naivete, others with full knowledge of how bad things really were.

Allow me to pass on this malignant but useful perspective to you:

1. Are your operational and financial controls really as tight as you think they are?

2. If someone is telling you they are, is he someone you can trust with absolute confidence?

Mike Palmer tells me that Alan Greenberg, the CEO of Bear Stearns, monitors the work and honesty of the business’s 11,000 employees by handing out rewards of 5% of the value of any error or theft employees uncover. “You don’t want to rely on an internal audit committee, where it takes years to find something,” Greenberg says. He apparently believes that having such a policy lets employees know they’re being watched by one another. Greenberg says he’s given away as much as $60,000 to a single employee.

My recommendation is this: Set up systems that make stealing and incompetence unlikely, identifiable, and traceable. Make it a company policy to accept very little or none of it. By establishing high standards and tough monitoring, you’ll get good performance. If you do anything less, you’ll get sloppy work, theft, and BS. Don’t walk around looking suspicious or accusing people of misdeeds. Rely on sensible systems to detect and weed out problems. Maintain high standards, but treat people as if you trust them — and trust them because you know you can.