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Botswana Roads Infrastructure - a ticking time bomb

Publishing Date : 28 November, 2017



A couple of months ago the Botswana Institution of Engineers published their position paper in the Weekend Post Newspaper titled “BOTSWANA ROADS INFRATRUCTURE FACES POTENTIAL MAINTENANCE TIME BOMB“. Incidentally, about this time last year (2016) I wrote a short article in a newspaper called Boidus Focus trying to say the same thing about our infrastructure in general, not just road infrastructure.

But I don’t know if my message came out as clearly as the BIE position paper puts it: “…Unless the road network is adequately maintained through the requisite funding the country will pay a highly amplified cost for having to undertake an ever increasing kilometrage of back-log maintenance which equates to an untenable maintenance time bomb.” In my article I concluded:  “Lackadaisical approach to preventative maintenance… eventually leads to more urgent and expensive maintenance faults. Therefore lack of preventative maintenance eventually leads to higher maintenance costs of your infrastructure”.

The discussions and conclusions as presented in the BIE position paper remind me of the story of “the Urgent file V/s Current file”. The story goes: at one point the Police Service in a certain country in Asia found themselves inundated with urgent files (urgent cases to investigate). Every now and then a senior police officer would bring an urgent file to the junior officer and instruct him/her to set aside the current file and work on the urgent file. And the junior officer would oblige and do the work with due diligence and attention. Except that more urgent files kept coming leading to more and more current files being set aside.

Eventually the complainants for the files set aside started coming one by one to the station commander to plead with him to treat their cases as urgent as they had been delayed for too long, and as we all know, “justice delayed is justice denied”. So the station commander would then take the files down to the officers and declare them as urgent. That meant the number of urgent files increased even further and by the same token, the amount of time delays on current files also increased even further, leading to more pleading with the station commander to treat them as urgent and thus fueling the vicious circle. 

This is exactly what happens overtime in facilities management if no due attention is given to preventative maintenance, but it usually happens in such a subtle manner that management does not notice it. In fact many property mangers; facilities managers or  organizations whose mandate includes maintenance of some property or infrastructure such as buildings, street lighting roads, power lines, pipelines, equipment etc, often find themselves caught up in the same situation at one point or the other.

Why? Because the mindset of limited resources sets up a competition between responsive maintenance and preventative maintenance, and responsive maintenance often wins as it shows the symptoms of damage to the property. Therefore it is treated as more urgent than preventative maintenance.

However, there are some unintended consequences of making the decision of prioritizing responsive maintenance over preventive maintenance. Over time, it is these unintended consequences that come back to add to the problem you were trying to eliminate in the first place. What then happens is that the fix or the attention to the problem grows and since there is “limited resources”, less attention is given to preventing the problem from occurring again. And so the problem keeps coming and increasing, slowly but surely in quantity and severity.

Here is how the problem looks like from a systemic viewpoint:

This structure is called “Fixes That Backfire”. The S Next to the circular arrows denotes same direction while the O denotes opposite direction. The big circular arrows indicate how the parts interact and affect one another over time. e.g. as the level of problem goes up, the level of fix goes up (same direction).

In a Fixes That Backfire situation a problem symptom cries out for resolution. A fix is quickly implemented which alleviates the problem. But overtime, the unintended consequence of the fix exacerbates the problem symptom, leading to more fixes. The cycle continues and the problem symptom gets worse and worse with time. In our structure above if you insert “demand for responsive maintenance” in place of “level of problem” and insert “action on responsive maintenance” in place of “level of fix “, and then insert “number of roads that missed preventive maintenance” in place of “unintended consequences”,  you will start seeing the picture.

Due to “limited resources” the responsive maintenance competes with preventative maintenance and so when there is action on responsive maintenance there is no action on preventative maintenance. Thus, over time the number of roads that missed preventative maintenance increase and reach the stage where they also call for responsive maintenance. And so, as more and more infrastructure calls for responsive maintenance less and less attention is given to preventative maintenance. The vicious circle then continues to run.

Interestingly, as this vicious circle continues to run, overtime another competitor then joins the raise: Emergency Maintenance! When emergency maintenance enters the raise both responsive and preventative maintenance are given less or no attention, and so the level of unintended consequences starts to grow faster. That means the vicious circle now starts to run not only faster but also more severely. And I am told we are at this stage with regards to our A3 road.

But this type of problem does not only exist in roads maintenance. It is prevalent in all other types of infrastructure – buildings, water pipelines, sewer systems, street lighting, equipment etc. etc. For example, how many of us can recall buildings which at completion of construction had nice well working central plant air conditioning system but are now infested with ugly wall mounted consoles or split air conditioning units?

Or how many of us live in villages where the water pressure is always so low that water only comes out of our taps at night because when the supplier tries to increase the pressure numerous pipe bursts occur that lead to closure of the line and worsens the water shortage situation? Or how many of us have now come to terms with the fact that street lights would go off more often during the rainy season? These are simply symptoms of organizations that are caught up in one of the systemic archetypes like the one described above.

But there is no blame! It’s a case of unintended consequences. Here is what the truth is. The systemic structure or Archetype called Fixes That Backfire as depicted above runs in most of our lives and our organizational systems. As we solve problems we create some unintended consequences. These unintended consequences eventually come back to us as more and more problems to solve. This is why we are so attuned to the culture of problem solving that we don’t find time to develop the culture of systemic thinking. Yet it is only when we have the systemic thinking skills that we can uncover and reverse the underlying structures that keep generating these problems.

Lackadaisical approach to preventative maintenance as depicted above is a sign of lack of capacity for systemic thinking. It is similar to setting aside the current file and attending to the urgent file. It is a sign of an organizational culture that is leaning more towards problem solving and less towards systemic thinking. The term organizational culture here we refers to the industry as a whole, not just those responsible for maintenance of the roads.

This culture of problem solving, doing more responsive maintenance at the expense of preventative maintenance, eventually leads to more urgent and expensive maintenance faults, which is more like the situation we are in as described by the BIE position paper. Nobody intended to leave the roads until the status they are in today. It is the underlying structures that led us to this stage. But we couldn’t see the situation unfolding because we don’t know how to see it clearly. It is not due to the aftermath of cyclone Dineo that we find ourselves in this situation. It has always been coming but we couldn’t notice because of the subtleness of the underlying structure that was driving the situation. 

So, what should happen regarding the current status of our roads? Of course we must find money quickly and attend to the roads now, lest we find ourselves in a worse situation next year. But it is also more important to start learning to see how the underlying systemic structures lead us to such situations, and then learning how to work with such structures to prevent the situations from happening again in the future.

So, while honing our skills for problem solving (timely response to damaged roads before they dilapidate) is necessary, it is even more important to develop the skill for systemic thinking – seeing ‘the whole’ rather than isolated parts, seeing interrelationships rather than things; seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots. In other words, learning to see archetypes in play like the Fixes That Backfire as demonstrated above and learning to discern points of high leverage is the way for sustainable solutions.

For any comments, questions and/or further clarifications feel free to contact me at:

TEL:  71793207 /     email:



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