Did you hear the one about "Little Johnny" and the Beehive? Everyone has heard a "Little Johnny" story sometime or another, right? The mischievous little kid who is particularly gifted at getting into jams. Here's a true story about the original "Little Johnny" and how basic risk management can help us navigate the dangers associated with life's big and little jams. Basic risk management means:
- Identify the hazard
- Assign a probability of the hazard occurring
- Assign a severity to the hazard, and
- Consider alternatives to mitigating the risk.
Doesn't sound too complicated, right? Circa 1961, enter Uncle Harbor, a novus apiarist (neuvo bee keeper) and a rather flamboyant character. Uncle Harbor was a WWII career navy man. A Chief Petty Officer, he was as "salty" a sailor as ever sailed the seven seas. He served honorably on numerous naval warships and survived heavy combat so he surely had some instinctive risk management skills. Uncle Harbor had little exposure to children and little patience for anything, especially kids. Think W.C. Fields.
Harbor maintained one of his hives on our parents small farm and decided on this particular day to visit that hive. Our Dad was at work so "Little Johnny" and I tagged along behind our Uncle, curious about what he was up to. We shadowed him down below the old shed near the apple tree where the hive was set. Our uncle apparently had no real agenda on this day. He wasn't planning to "rob" the honey or anything exciting. He just wanted to check on how the hive was functioning. He did not have his "bee suit" on, nor did he have his smoker.
Keeping our distance, we observed Uncle cautiously approach the hive with no consideration for the Little Johnny factor. Completely unaware that Little Johnny had selected both a rock and a target, Uncle Harbor had himself failed to conduct a risk assessment. Uncle peeked into the hive to see his bees. With amazing accuracy and remarkable timing for a 4-year-old, Little Johnny launched a huge rock that crashed into the side of the hive. Hundreds of angry bees instinctively swarmed Uncle Harbor in an effort to protect the hive and their Queen.
If you have seen the "Messing with Sasquatch" commercials, the melee that followed made Sasquatch look calm. For an old man, Uncle Harbor could run fast and cuss faster. Little Johnny and I bolted in different directions, and I was relieved when Uncle "Sasquatch" charged off after Little Johnny. He scooped him up on a dead run and warmed his backside with angry bees in pursuit, all the while unleashing a vocabulary heretofore unknown to us.
As a P-3 Orion pilot during my military career I had cause to conduct frequent risk assessments. On a mission over the Atlantic years later, as I recalled Little Johnny's misadventure, it hit me. Johnny had failed to conduct a risk assessment. He neither considered the probability of hitting the bee hive, nor the severity of success.
We never knew whether Uncle Harbor got stung, and frankly he was likely too angry and tough to have even noticed. Little Johnny continued to provide all sorts of entertainment for our family and friends with his Huckleberry Finn-like antics and pranks. In spite of his childhood resume, Little Johnny grew up to become a great family man and an electrical engineer, earning the distinction of being named Engineering Fellow at Boeing. Among his many professional roles there, paradoxically, engineer John now helps the company and the defense industry it serves manage risk.