A systematic culture of failure

Okay, what follows is a rant full of wild generalizations about Canadian “culture.” While on the one hand all I really want to do is vent about how terrible our experience was moving back to Canada (under both emergency and pandemic conditions), I also think the experience uncovered a fundamental truth about how society works in Canada, especially when compared to a place like Japan.

Now that the preamble is done, let me further digress with a preface. 😉 On the exact same day we left Japan, Thersa Matsuura of Uncanny Japan (an excellent podcast, highly recommended) also left Japan for a few weeks in the US. Upon returning to Japan she had this to say:

Observation: The stay in the States was absolute heaven. Well, except for some serious incompetency by the clinic who did our final PCR test (to be done within a 72-hour window before our flight, they got my time wrong and wouldn’t correct it). I was flabbergasted at how (in general) no one will take responsibility for anything or apologize when a mistake is made, even if its on behalf of the company/institution/store. It made me re-appreciate how (for the most) part people here take pride in their work, try to help, keep things tidy, and don’t bad mouth you or their jobs so other people can hear. I’m still shaking over that.

(To read the full post check out her Patreon, and give the podcast a listen!)

Yes, yes, and yes! I can agree with all of that. And I would like to make an observation of my own: one thing that I think drives at the heart of all this is planning — or lack thereof.

In our move to Canada we were failed by pretty much every system and process in place. It was laughable. (Skip the next section if you don’t want to hear all the gory and frustrating details)

Experiencing failure systematically

For example, ArriveCAN is a smartphone app that all visitors to Canada are supposed to use in order to track and report their travel and quarantine. This app is mandatory for all travellers to Canada, yet has no category for “returnee.” In otherwords, a Canadian living abroad like me who needs to move back to Canada is not considered as an option at all in the app. Further to that, you must enter a Canadian phone number into the app so that government officials can call to check up on you. Of course, I am moving back so do not have a Canadian phone number. There are no opportunities when passing through the airport to get even a temporary SIM card, and our Government-Approved Accommodation would not help us in acquiring one. When I tried to order a SIM for delivery to the hotel, they would not accept the hotel phone number or an international number as a callback number to place the order. I just gave up and put in our Japanese number, and then once I was in country it took four days of back and forth before my brother was able to pick up a SIM card and deliver it to our quarantine location. Even after all that it did not work and took a couple more days of phone calls before I finally got my Canadian number.

The quarantine process is full of failure points too. Before arriving in Canada you are supposed to schedule a covid test at the airport. I did so, but when we were funnelled out of arrivals we were told to get into the Unscheduled line since “that line is shorter.” There a nurse re-entered all of my information again from scratch and sent us off to do our tests. This test is crucial. Upon arrival everyone must spend three days in a Government-Approved Accommodation waiting for the results of this test to come back negative before they can continue onto their final destination. Because we were going to spend three days without going anywhere I opted for a bit more of an expensive hotel with more space. It cost $350 a night. There is a whole list of things that went wrong at this place that I won’t go into, but I will just give one example of how the toilet didn’t work and the bathtub was plugged but no one could come in to repair it due to covid restrictions. I ended up cajoling them to leave tools outside my door so I could fix it myself.

Once we got our airport arrival covid tests back we left for Kelowna to wait out the next 11 days of self-isolation. I had a special letter from the government allowing me to travel to only one extra location — the hospital — to see my father who was dying with lung cancer. This permission, which I applied for while I was in Japan, of course came late. In fact, I spoke to the Public Health authority upon arrival at the Canadian border. She was very nice and called to get the approval expedited since it should have arrived before we did. The next day I got a notice of REJECTION, with instructions to re-apply. I did so, calling the authorities again to get things expedited, and of course it still took longer than the projected time (again!) and for some reason my wife and children were approved but I was rejected (all the application documents were exactly the same 🤷‍♂️).

Anyways, the next step is on Day 8 when you take another covid test. If you get a negative test result on this one, then you are free to go once your 14 days are up. The tests are a “home kit” from the company Switch Health, which was handed to every person leaving the airport. How it works is you call up a nurse on a webcam, and he walks you through doing a nasal swab which you then package up and put on the doorstep for Purolator to pick up and take to the lab for testing. There is a nice little video here showing the process with a lady that looks far too comfortable after theoretically spending 8 days in isolation with two children! On Day 8 we sat down and I swabbed both my kids and my wife who then in turn swabbed me. We loaded everything up and were just in time for the 1PM Purolator pickup. Phew! Now just to wait a couple of days for the results to come in!

You can probably guess how this is going…

Three days later results came in for me and my oldest daughter, but curiously not for my wife or youngest. “Hmmmm…” I thought. “Well, there were four separate packages so I cannot expect them to be done all together. I will give this professional medical organization that is the sole contractor to the federal government for the entire Canadian international travel program a little longer to do their jobs.” Two days later I called them and they said there was no record of the samples. A few more incompetent steps later (with me having to do the investigating myself which showed that Switch did in fact receive ALL the samples on the same day) the call centre person shipped out two new replacement tests.

So, here is a customer service lesson: replacing a failed product for free and quickly is a good thing — if the product failed and is still desired. In this case however, it was not the product that failed, but the service. Replacing the product is not a job well done. They do not deserve a pat on the back for their “quick solution.” What they should have done was find the damn samples lost in their lab! Over the next five days, after talking to many different call centre agents including an entirely separate support system on Twitter (which also sent me replacement boxes) the company was never able to find the lost samples (despite reassuring me many times they were looking) and we ended up completing and sending in new samples. My poor 9 year old had to undergo a wholly unnecessary third nasal swab. In the end, we got our results and were able to go free after 19 days of isolation.

The source of systemic failure

Returning to Canada from Japan I had to relearn a bit of street sense that I had lost after more than a year on our small island: things never go as you expect; there is always a problem that needs to be navigated around or a ball to be dropped; so you must be vigilant if you want things to get done properly.

In my (personal and professional) experience, very few processes in Canada are really thought out comprehensively. Canadian society values problem-solving and creativity (I don’t know if this is the cause or the result of lack of planning). It also doesn’t help that Canadians are often “too polite” to complain when something fails their expectations. Politeness can be an enabler of bad behaviour.

Another possible source might lie in our hypercapitalist mentality which requires things to be cheap and fast: planning is usually cut short in order to get things done (I bet many project managers not given enough time and resources to do their job properly might be nodding their heads in agreement about now!). As long as the plan covers 80% of outcomes (a number I just made-up of course, and have no evidence for), the common attitude seems to be: we can deal with the exceptions on a case-by-case basis. It is like a sort of twisted Pareto Principle logic. Obviously it takes much less time/money/effort than coming up with a comprehensive plan that accounts for all possible outcomes (like say the Japanese might do). But when you are a victim of that unplanned 20% it is extremely frustrating, and it is geometrically more frustrating when the failures cascade as in our situation.

After all the above pain — and then the passing of my dad — the resistance to my return just felt like the manifestation of Canada herself was rejecting me.( I don’t want to use the metaphor of a vaccine against coronavirus here, even though that is exactly the cliché that is in my mind at this moment.)

Furthermore, you must remember that I am a fully capable adult who can speak English natively. I cannot imagine having some sort of disability, or being an immigrant without full command of English, trying to navigate these systems that are built with such a large margin of failure. Also note that I never blame the front line workers who are generally underpaid and undertrained, expected to make do and keep the profits flowing. I have been on their side of the counter, and the stress and frustration of bad processes is shared by all sides. And to take it back to what Thersa observed, workers will refuse to take responsibility and even bad-mouth their jobs in front of those being served. Although that is a whole other issue of manners and customer service, a part of me does not blame them. Lack of planning is a disservice to all. It is a form of disrespect. Planning really is thoughtfulness, and you can’t have thoughtfulness without respect. No wonder people cannot take pride in their work. Maybe lack of respect really is the underlying cause of all this lack of planning. This all may be a sweeping generalization, but it was laid bare as a reverse-culture shock on my return to Canada last month.

/end rant

Published by Chad Kohalyk

Belletrist, communitarian, tech contrarian. Generous with Likes.