Last week, there was a 13-year-old boy, with Asperger’s syndrome, who ran away from home and rode away in the NYC subway system for 11 days undetected!!!
The boy went missing with $11 dollars in his pocket. “According to CNN, the boy's mother says he survived on fast food and candy he purchased in the subway system. He spent the majority of his time riding the trains. He wore the same clothes for the duration and lived underground, sleeping in subway cars and using underground restrooms.”
Many people were out looking for this boy, including the police, but neither the searchers nor the extensive surveillance apparatus in New York picked him out. Apparently, no one on the trains reported seeing this kid riding endlessly around 24x7, and the boy was invisible to the myriad of hardworking transit workers and officers who are all over the transit system, until day 11 when finally one officer recognized the boy from his missing picture.
How can a boy be there for almost two weeks, but be seemingly invisible to the thousands of riders and workers passing thru the subway system and what can this teach us about leadership and organizations?
Information Overload—This is truly the information age. We have morphed from not having enough information to being flooded with it and not being able to process it. With the missing boy on the NYC MTA subway system, he was literally lost amidst the more than 5 million riders a day and 468 stations. This is a common situation these days where we have access to stores of information, on databases and through the Internet, yet we frequently struggle to find the golden nuggets of information that really mean something. Post 9-11, our military and intelligence communities are being flooded by sensor information from a vast network of resources, and the challenge now is to find innovative ways to process it quickly and effectively—to find the proverbial “needle in the haystack” and to stop the next potential attack. Our organizations in the public and private sectors need faster, more accurate, and finely tuned systems to find the dots, connect the dots, and see the picture.
Process Matters—According to Digital Journal, “the disappearance was reported to police immediately, who treated it as a runaway. After five days had passed, it was being treated as a missing persons case.” The police were following their processes in handling this little boy, but it resulted in five days passing without the assumed more intense search that occurs with a missing persons case. Lesson to note is that having standardized, documented business processes are important in efficiently managing operations, but we should not get so caught up in the process that we become rigid and inflexible in handling cases according to the specific situation. While I am not an expert in this, the question does come to mind, whether the search for a child with a known disability may have been escalated/elevated sooner? And the point, I am really trying to make is that we need to keep our organizations and processes agile and responsive so that we can act meaningfully and in time.
Break through the Apathy—Having been a former New Yorker (and I suppose, it never truly leaves your blood), I am well aware of the accusations and jokes made about rudeness and apathy from people in the “city that never sleeps.” NY is a tough town, no doubt. The people are quick and sharp. They work and play hard. They are good, productive people. But living in a city with 8.3 million people in one of the most dense urban centers of the world can take a toll. Even with major clean-up efforts in recent years, NYC still has its fair share of crowding, pollution, and crime and this can take a toll on even the best people. I remember daily sights of panhandling, poor and ill people, aggressiveness not limited to the yellow cabbies. I suppose, one disabled boy could get lost amidst the city chaos, but the challenge is to break through the apathy or callousness that can easily overtake people and continue to care for each and every person that needs our help. This is no small challenge in a city with a 21.2% poverty rate (US Census Bureau 1999), let along in a world where 1 in 4 (or 1.3 billion persons) live on less than $1 a day. As leaders, we need to push for caring over apathy and for seeing and acting versus blinding ourselves to the pain and misfortune of others.
Could we have found this little boy sooner? Maybe. Could it have ended a lot worse? For sure.
While this missing persons situation is now over, we need to prepare ourselves for future events and contingencies. We can do this by continuing to create better systems and mechanisms to process information better, faster, and cheaper—it’s not longer just the quantity of information, but the quality and it’s timeliness and relevance; by reengineering our business processes so that we are alert, nimble and responsive—rigid processes lead to hard and fast rules that serve no one; and building camaraderie with one another—seeing that we are more the same, than we are different—and that everyone matters—even a kid underground in a subway system spanning 656 long and winding miles.
And lest anybody think I’m giving New Yorkers a hard time, believe me when I say – it is “the city” that has given me the street smarts to navigate the Beltway and challenge anyone who says that something can’t be done!