Duct tape works well to patch holes in leaky boats. It is sticky and stays on well. However, duct tape is not the best strategy to keep your boat afloat. Of course, it would be best if there were never any holes to fix. This might be impossible if one uses the boat a lot though, because of Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics. This law says that left alone, everything continually trends toward the state of maximum disorder, or entropy. This means all boats eventually acquire holes. It might be due to rust, or to scratches, or maybe because someone drove over the boat with a skidloader.
Newton probably did not own cows; nor did he likely have any employees. If he had, he would have quickly realized that nothing demonstrates the validity of that second law better than a dairy farm. Cows and employees can be hard on stuff. Dairy farmers understand and deal with this every day. So do veterinarians. One part of our job is helping patch the boat. It might not be the most fun part of our job, but we try to do it with a smile. What can be hard, though, is working on farms where the farmer is always ripping the duct tape off the boat. Just when the boat is going down the river of the dairy quickly and easily, he or she pulls off a piece of tape or three. Then we all rush in to fix the leak. Of course, when we do this, we pull effort from some other important task, and other holes spring up. We then rush to patch those holes, and the cycle repeats. Soon we reach a steady state of only ever plugging holes and never preventing holes in the first place. Farms like this operate in a constant state of chaos. Owners and managers become chaos managers. These farms might accurately be described as leaky boat dairies. One expects that well-meaning employees and indifferent cows will remove tape just because of the second law, but why do some owners do it?
One probably needs to be a professional psychologist to answer this question, but 40 years of dairy practice has given me some insights. Mostly, people do this for reasons that have something to do with Steven Covey’s four quadrants of time management. Covey described these in his classic management text, “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People,” in 1989. Covey’s quadrants were shown as four boxes stacked so there were two columns and two rows. The columns were labeled urgent and not urgent while the rows were labeled important” and not important. The quadrants were urgent and important; not urgent but important; urgent but not important; and not urgent and not important.     Covey argued that humans choose which quadrants to operate within. Some of us like to spend our time in urgent and important, which is the place where things need to be done right now, while others may choose to live in not urgent and important, where thinking, planning and prevention are the main activities.
Still others prefer to live in urgent but not important, where interruptions, some email and other pressing issues dominate. Finally, and unfortunately, some of us live in not urgent and not important, where busy work, like personal social media and other time wasters exist.
So, why do we rip off duct tape from our boats? Some of us like to operate in quadrant one, urgent and important, so we actually move things that are not urgent and important into that quadrant. Removing the tape over a hole makes fixing the hole a task that needs to be done right now. It seems that some of us need to rip the tape off before we address a problem that should be in quadrant two, important but not urgent.
For example, let’s pretend you had a mastitis problem on your dairy, and through working with your veterinarian, you determined your employees had an inconsistent milking routine. You created a parlor manager position on your organizational chart, and delegated that responsibility to one of your most trusted milking technicians. Through his hard work, the milking routing became consistent, and eventually the mastitis problem was resolved. Then one day you needed someone to drive a forage truck, and then later to help with some fieldwork, and then to help in the calf barn. Moving the manager around the farm became a regular practice. A few months later, the mastitis problem returned. Diverting your excellent parlor manager to other tasks is akin to ripping off the duct tape. Now you have an urgent and important problem that demands your attention. Addressing it as an emergency might require ripping off duct tape from somewhere else.
The best way to not become a leaky boat dairy is to keep most of one’s activities in the important but not urgent quadrant, so problems can either be prevented or addressed before they become urgent. This can be hard to do thanks to Newton, but even if one cannot always accomplish that, at least try not to move activities into the urgent and important quadrant by ripping off the duct tape. Do not be a leaky boat dairy.
Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He also consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at bennettnvac@gmail.com with comments or questions.