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16 January 2019
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Martin Read is editor of FM World
Martin Read is editor of FM World

06 November 2017 Martin Read

A classic 'in it together' anecdote may actually be doing FM more harm than good, writes FM World editor Martin Read 

OK, so stop me if you’ve heard this one before: John F Kennedy was visiting NASA in the early Sixties to assess progress in the space race, whereupon he was introduced to a janitor mopping the floor.

“What are you doing?” asked the president. What followed is a response so pithy and inspirational that, if anything, it resonates more today than ever before.

“Well, Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”  

This juxtaposition of down-to-earth task and space age ambition is powerful: We all play our part, no matter what our contribution to the team. That said, I’m beginning to have doubts about the value of this lovely old anecdote, its focus on a single janitorial task confining it to caricature.

Here’s why that’s important: I’ve recently met several 2017 BIFM Awards winners. When asked which external perception of FM they would gladly be rid of, they all wanted the same thing – to stop people saying: “oh, you’re the guys who clean the floors / toilets.”

You can tell how much it grates, this reduction of FM to a single function. As long as people see just the task and not the bigger picture, that link from janitor to moon remains more rhetoric than reality.

Perhaps it’s a pity this meeting didn’t occur a decade later. Same NASA, but a different president, venue and mission.

Picture the scene: Richard Nixon is visiting NASA to assess progress on the race to fix Apollo 13’s broken systems in that most miraculous of reactive maintenance projects. He is introduced to someone conducting a variety of tasks in support of engineers by bringing old kit back into service, keeping the coffee coming, sourcing equipment, preparing special test conditions and, of course, cleaning up.

“What are you doing?” Nixon would have asked.

“Well, Mr President, I’m helping put three human beings back on Earth.” 

This more urgent scenario may have better helped open people’s eyes to the critical link between those conducting even the most complex of endeavours and the hugely capable facilities personnel supporting them. And perhaps the FM profession would have formed earlier on the back of all the publicity.

Now come on – that really would have been one giant leap for mankind.

Martin Read is editor of FM World