Murphy’s Law, “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” is often taken as a defeatist’s lament to the fates that as hard as a person tries, bad things will happen. There are other phrasings of Murphy’s Law but they all lean toward having to accept things that are out of our control.
Understood in its entirety, Murphy’s Law is much more powerful than a simple shrugging of the shoulders and chalking up to bad luck a particular mischance or catastrophe.
I’ll go into the origins of Murphy’s law later but based on a fuller examination of those origins I posit that Murphy’s Law is more appropriately stated as “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, so do something to prevent things from going wrong.” In short, make things or processes Murphy Proof.
One of my favorite Murphy Proof items, one we see multiple times per day and never give a second thought to, is the ubiquitous manhole cover. Manhole covers are round to make them Murphy Proof. A square manhole cover needs to be carefully handled so that it doesn’t slip and fall through the manhole causing a catastrophe. A square manhole cover can be diagonally dropped through the manhole whereupon the dropper would likely cry out “Murphy got me again” and blame the accident on bad luck.
A round manhole cover, on the other hand, can’t be dropped through the hole it covers. A round manhole cover is Murphy Proof. We all need to think in terms of Murphy Proofing things. A little bit of planning can often avoid a lot of frustration later.
Here is an example of a system that is NOT Murphy Proof. The message was located on the inside of a restroom door in a restaurant. It reads:
Please PUSH in lock to lock the door. DO NOT twist the lock or the door will remain locked from the inside. Thank You. Togo’s Crew.
We can infer from this note’s emphasis on PUSH – DO NOT twist, that the crew does not like to deal with the consequences of people not obeying the admonishment of the note. Perhaps the restroom occupant gets locked into the restroom and pounds on the door until at least one person in the crew stops what they are doing, looks for a key, asks other crew members if they have seen the key and then unlocks the door only to have the next restroom user potentially twist the lock on leaving. The restroom user could (1) ignore the note, (2) not understand the note, (3) want to see what happens when they twist instead of push or (4) the note might have fallen to the floor. This system comprising a lock and a note is not Murphy Proof.
A simple Murphy Proof solution to this problem would be to invest in a door lever that ONLY has a PUSH button. Understandably, the management of the crew, will weigh the cost of buying and installing a new door lever against continuing with the current lock that has a cost of its own in terms of upsetting customers and taking time away from busy crew members.
Some of my favorite Murphy Proof-isms are:
- Don’t take your car keys out of your pocket standing over a drainage grate.
- Don’t pass your coffee cup over a computer keyboard.
- Find out how far your gate is before you spend time at an airport bookstore.
- Don’t back up a car any more than you need to.
- Make a second copy of your presentation on a flash drive.
You can probably imagine some of the events that led to the generation of that little list.
Now to the origins of Murphy’s Law and why so many people fail to understand its real value. It is generally accepted that Edward A. Murphy was responsible for designing and installing sensors to measure the physical stresses on Air Force Captain John Stapp as he was rapidly decelerated in a rocket sled. It seems Murphy’s assistant wired the sensors backwards and they didn’t work leading Murphy to opine that if there were two ways to do something and one way would cause a catastrophe, then his assistant would eventually do it the wrong way – hence “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”. A defeatist’s or perhaps a scapegoater’s view of a problem.
Captain Stapp, on the other hand took the newly minted Murphy’s Law and extended it to explain that they used Murphy’s Law to make things safer. They anticipated what could go wrong and then took steps to prevent mishaps. In the case of the stress sensors, perhaps Captain Stapp insisted that they install connectors on the wires of the sensors that could only be connected in one way. He may have also added the Murphy Proofing step of testing the sensors for functionality before firing off the rocket sled.
Murphy Proofing does require some additional analysis to anticipate potential problems and it often involves additional cost as in the need to replace a twist lock on a bathroom door with a push button but the added analysis and expense often reap tremendous benefits in the form of problem or catastrophe avoidance.