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Bring Lawyers, Guns and Money, the Oil Has Hit the Sand: Avoiding Future Deep Water Oil Well Disasters

2011/01/17

I am very concerned that the recommendations of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling do not go far enough to achieve real, lasting improvement in safety.  The Commission’s report concluded that “Better management of decision-making processes within BP and other companies, better communication within and between BP and its contractors and effective training of key engineering and rig personnel would have prevented the Macondo incident.”  The report also notes that this disaster can be seen as a result of a broader breakdown of communication and a lack of a safety culture across the various companies.  While the Commission calls for more research, funding and oversight to address these issues, I doubt this will be sufficient.  One simple, but more fundamental change is required.  In a complex, multi-contractor setting, there needs to be more effective, multi-stakeholder sharing of information and decision-making than what may be common practice among the lawyers, investors, engineers, and managers of the various entities.

Elsewhere in this blog, (see Improving Safety by Taking More Risks)  we have discussed the complex and difficult nature of systemic issues that contribute to safety concerns. How might we take these observations and apply them to this case?  The complex, interacting contributions of the various contractors and subcontractors to the Macondo incident have been described in the report. We have also written about the importance of sharing very different views on such subjects in order to achieve really wise decisions (Improving Safety, Quality and Productivity Together).  Is it possible that some of the most powerful companies in the world, such as Haliburton and BP, could be open to different ways of sharing information and mutual decision-making; particularly when their lawyers tell them not to?

I believe that a different kind of communication and decision-making among contractors on a project is possible.  I’d like to give you an example.

A few years ago, a colleague and I were brought in to work with the contractors in a big state highway contract that was falling far behind schedule.  A number of the biggest design/build contractors were involved in this effort. There were various penalties for failing to hit project performance targets, particularly timing deadlines.  Things had become ugly between the various contractors.  There was a considerable amount of finger-pointing and various lawsuits had begun.  In spite of this, the project had to go on, and real teamwork would be required among all the contractors in the coming months to complete the project and minimize any penalties.

In response, a special meeting was held with representatives from all the major players, including the client (the state department of transportation).   Because litigation had already begun between the parties, the lawyers insisted that the meeting be restricted to considering the present and future actions of the project team.  There was to be no reference to past actions or inactions.  The task of this meeting was to be strictly focused on how the project team would accomplish the remaining work to complete the highway according to the promised specifications, while working as efficiently as possible so as to control costs and time.

More than 20 engineers, managers and government inspectors were present for the day and a half meeting.  A High Engagement Meetings design created a structured environment and protocol that enabled every participant to engage with others about the points that mattered most.  The focus on future actions helped build mutual problem solving and consensus on action plans.  In the months following this meeting, the project got back on track and into compliance with client expectations and performance standards.

A new culture of safety and performance in deep water well drilling operations is possible, but it will require multilateral decision-making and structural protocols for surfacing and addressing contentious issues before positions harden and accidents happen.  Without more productive meetings that promote real dialog among the parties, there will continue to be functional isolation and defensive communication practices.  We know how to improve day-to-day safety culture, in action, by improving cross-organization decision-making.  Will BP, other major contractors, the government, investors and other leaders take the necessary steps to mitigate enterprise risks like the deep-water oil spill?  For the sake of both worker and environmental safety (along with financial performance), I sincerely hope they do.

(With apologies to Warren Zevon for the title’s paraphrased lyric, but best to leave the guns at the meeting room door!)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 2011/01/17 9:33 pm

    One of the most frequently mentioned problems in organizations is lack of communication and ineffective decision making. But how do we change that? Rick shows the way. Use a structured environment and protocol that (1) enables every participant to engage with others about (2) the points that matter most, and where the focus is on (3) future actions that help build mutual problem solving and consensus on (4) action plans.

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