Disasters Are Unlikely

The BP oil spill in the gulf is a complex and serious situation. On top of the very immediate and long term consequences, there are tons of lessons to be learned about management, communication, and risk.

Lots of companies have risk management strategies and disaster recovery plans. On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart got a great deal of comedic mileage from first showing representatives of other oil companies stating that they would not have drilled the well the way BP did and how they had contingency plans for disasters, but then revealing that they all had the SAME plan (probably cloned from an association or reference…or maybe purchased from the same consultant).

And the plans were obsolete…clearly they had spent their days on a shelf somewhere.

Point: Catastrophic failures don’t happen very often so nobody really expects them. It takes awhile for the reality to sink in when they do.

Similar in character, though different in scale, from the performance requirements for quality inspectors. Quality inspectors look at a lot of good parts and only very rarely encounter defects…at least in a mature process. It is one thing to teach and qualify that an inspector has the capability to identify a defect but may be another to ensure that they always expect to see one. It seems like there is a delay in many cases of recognizing that a disaster is, in fact, occurring. In the BP example, there were reports of unusual pressure readings and equipment problems before the explosion that started the leak…but apparently, they weren’t recognized as symptoms of a serious problem and, probably, because serious problems hardly ever happen. Most likely, none of the managers had ever been through something like that. (Disclaimer: I’m speculating here.)

But a disaster is different from normal performance in another significant way…in most cases, the performance situation is novel, so, it has never been seen before. There may be a general procedure but it probably has to be adapted. Most likely, it will need to be invented. That means a delay in decision-making. Who is in charge? What options do we have? Which one should we pursue? Where can we get the resources (people, equipment, even funding)?

And, you can’t ignore the pressure. A disaster brings out everyone second-guessing, criticizing, offering “help,” and demanding a quick fix. Not only does that make leadership in these situations painful but more difficult. All that pressure can cause leaders to make decisions and statements they might not otherwise. For example, is it a good idea to worry about who is to blame and is it necessary to scathingly denounce those responsible right away? Or is it better to fix the problem first and worry about blame later?

Managing during a disaster is a huge challenge. But the risk is always there…will you be ready?

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