Deepwater Horizon and the culture of fear
The NY Times has an informative article about the Deepwater Horizon oilrig that blew up this spring. The Times sums up that there were supposed to be several chances to prevent the disaster but no one seemed to sense how bad things were. I disagree. If that blowout preventer didn’t work when they finally pressed the button, it would not have worked three minutes earlier, when they might have pressed the button. I see the problem as a culture of fear on the rig. Not fear of the monstrous physical forces that threatened the crew, but fear of management. Here is a quick summation of the disaster.
- BP, a bunch of elitist cheapskate finance types*, cut corners to get the well plugged so the drilling rig can go to the next job and a pumping rig can connect to the riser pipe.
- This poor schlameel takes a 10-minute cigarette break while the needles are all gyrating wildly. By the time he gets back, the pressures are all high but in the normal range.
- The poorly-cemented well has a blowout, where natural gas blows the mud and capping fluid out of the pipe. As it rises to the surface the volume of the gas greatly expands. Remember that Boyle guy?
- The natural gas bathes the rig and gets to the Diesel engines that provide electrical power as well as the hydraulic power and the propulsion systems that keep the rig in position. When Diesels get more fuel, they speed up. This either blows up the engines or creates so much voltage the electrical sparks light off a gas-air explosion. This happens twice in rapid succession.
- This diligent peon has the wherewithal to radio call a mayday.
- The captain of the rig reprimands her since he did not order her to call a mayday. She is at a console where she could have fired the blowout preventer and killed the rig, but remember, she just got yelled at by the Captain. Pressing the button would not have mattered anyway since the disconnect and blowout preventer were already broken.
- Chris Pleasant shows up from the bowels if the rig; Says he is going to press the big red button, the Captain says not to. He presses it anyway. A few minutes later the captain ordered him to press the button. Homeboy tells the Captain “I already did”. A minute later the Captain orders “abandon ship”.
Now in addition to the culture of fear, there was a clouded control structure. The Captain was only Captain of the rig when it was sailing to and fro around the world to drilling sites. He really was in no position to be calling the shots in an oil well disaster, but we all know how power is cherished by those with it. It was never really clear that this guy was just a passenger like anybody else. The rig would have been best served if they housed the guy on land until it was time to move the rig. So he demands control and power, and then does essentially nothing, until things are so dire he just gives up and hollers “abandon ship”. Don’t blame him-he drives a boat. If he was like Bruce Willis in that Armageddon movie he might have been able to process what was going on, but he was a boat guy, not an oil guy.
But it is the guy that came into the control room and pressed the big red button that should get an award. Yeah, I know there were heroes who went back to get the injured to safety. But Chris Pleasant had the best answer to the all the questions in the investigation. They asked him why he thought he had the authority to press the big red button before he was ordered to do it. Mr. Pleasant says:
“I am the authority. It’s my equipment.”
I learned about authority and responsibly from the ex Army captains that Ford Motor would hire into the engineering department. It was one of them that explained to me, back in 1980, how Ford management had things completely backwards. This military man explained that Ford delegated responsibility to us peons, but not any authority. So the management tried to cop out of any problems by saying it was the engineers’ responsibility, but they never gave us any budget or headcount or contractors or tools or anything else. The Army guy said that every officer is told that what you delegate is authority. The responsibility always remains with the officers. That is, after all, why they are officers, they have assumed responsibility for things. So the soldiers are given authority to act and make decisions for the management, but the responsibility for success rests firmly on management’s shoulders.
The culture of an empowered private is a cherished part of the American military tradition. One of Napoleon’s generals is reputed to have said: “How can you fight these Americans? The Lieutenants disobey the Captains; the Captains disobey the generals. You don’t know what they are going to do. How can you defeat them?”
When I was a consultant I watched dozens of companies die because management had the employees so scared no one would volunteer to fix things or point out flaws, especially flaws in management theory or practice. It was almost comical. These dysfunctional companies would hire me for a hundred bucks an hour, and the first thing I would do was head down to the lab benches and shop floor to talk to the employees. They usually could identify the problems, but what stunned me is most times the line-level employees also knew how to fix things. I helped a bit with tricky troubleshooting or a clever design here or there, but the employees could have kept the company going if they just had the authority to change things.
I can see the culture of fear in some of the more troubled semiconductor companies here in Silicon Valley. When I ask their engineers if I can quote them or if I can take a picture or use a schematic, they seize up right in front of my eyes, like deer in the headlights of a speeding Hummer. They tell me to check with their boss or the PR department. When I ask the boss he says he will get back to me and never does, or he doesn’t even return the call.
Other companies have much more confident culture. When I ask the PR people at Linear Tech if I can publish a picture from Jim Williams’ office they don’t hesitate or put me off. The conversation goes something like this: “Can I run this picture I took in Jim Williams’ office?” “Is it OK with Jim?” “Yeah, he watched me take the picture” “OK, fine with us”. Funny thing is that Linear Tech is reputed to be a place where you can hear heated arguments in halls and passionate people shouting at each other. Maybe it is this fact, that people get things off their chest and move on, is what gives rise to a courageous culture. So rather than these loud disagreements fostering fear, they do the exact opposite.
I suspect Apple Computer has a culture of fear. I am told that every single employee is terrified of coming to Steve Job’s attention. My friends tell me that under all the whizzy industrial design, Apple products are actually very conservative. It makes me wonder what will happen when Steve is gone.
So for the New Year, don’t get defeated by a culture of fear. If you ran that test or sent something out for cal and your boss demands to know where you got the authority, just tell him what Chris said:
“I am the authority. It’s my equipment.”
That way, maybe your company won’t sink in the next disaster.
* And get this, Tony Hayward was the guy that the BP board installed to clean out the elitism and arrogance, and he supposedly did. Can you image what BP was like before? It would all be perfectly harmless if it weren’t for the exploding refineries and toxic oil spills.