Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Missing the Point

As a young production supervisor, one of the myriad training classes I was required to attend was produced by a company called Kepner-Treghoe. I don't know if they are still in business, but I'll never forget that class: problem solving. We were taught how to separate the symptoms we observed from the actual problem. That way we could attack the real issue instead of stomping out fires that never seemed to go out. The concept was simple and straight-forward. We were given the tools needed to go after real problems armed with real solutions. It all made sense and I actually used some of those techniques throughout my career.

It's relatively easy to miss the problem at hand and go off tilting with windmills like some modern day Don Quixote. We do it all the time. And, granted, much of the time it is very difficult to separate the real problem from the symptoms that annoy us.

But once in a while the problem glares at us so intensely it is difficult to miss, whether we've had any formal training or not. Take, for example, the recent events in Las Vegas. The city council in its collective wisdom decided to pass an ordinance barring the feeding of indignants in city parks. Suddenly, it was a criminal act to feed even one hungry person in a Las Vegas city park. An indignant, as defined by the wording of that ordinance was a "person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive assistance" from the government or under state law.

Interesting, huh? What exactly does that mean? What do people who are "entitled to apply for or receive assistance" look like? Reminds me of an ad I saw once that showed two people standing next to each other. One was dressed in a nice suit, the other had long hair, a tattoo and a full beard. The ad asked us to identify the drug user. Of course, the ad was meant to challenge our pre-conceived notions. The guy in the suit was fingered as the drug abuser.

Maybe the law enforcement officials of Las Vegas should have simply heeded the word their mayor, Oscar Goodman who said, "certain truths are self-evident. You know who's homeless." Well, that cleared things up, right? Talk about pre-conceived prejudices.

Thankfully, just three days before Thanksgiving, a U.S. District Court judge declared the ordinance unconstitutional because it targeted a certain segment of the population.

The point of me telling you all this is to examine the real issue here. Was it feeding the hungry? I don't think so. Las Vegas has long been trying to deal with its homeless population. The problem is not feeding those less fortunate anymore than it is to blame litter in city parks on the same class of people. The problem is that the homeless exist at all.

If we attack anything else, we are only attacking symptoms. And my Kepner-Treghoe training tells me that as long as we go after symptoms, the problem causing them will never go away. I know it is a grand, noble and extremely difficult task to house and employ the homeless. But preventing those who care from providing a meal is not going to make the problem of homeless people in Las Vegas disappear.

I don't have an answer to this problem for Las Vegas or anywhere else. I wish I did. But I will suggest this: if it is too difficult for the Las Vegas city council to identify what really needs fixing, I would be delighted to lend them my dusty old Kepner-Treghoe training manual.