Tag Archives: gulf oil disaster

A Management Problem Should Be Easy To Fix, Right? – Reflecting On BP’s Failure

Management: Organization and coordination of the activities of an enterprise in accordance with certain policies and in achievement of clearly defined objectives.


It is hard to escape news about the BP Oil Disaster.  It is omnipresent, as it should be.  But part of this week’s news has to do with the judge’s decision to block the Obama ordered 6-month moratorium on drilling.

In a Christian Science Monitor article on the decision, we find this note:

“This is not an engineering problem, it’s a management problem, and it’s BP’s management that screwed up,” says Bruce Johnson, a professor emeritus of oceanic engineering at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The moratorium “penalizes the whole industry for the mistakes of” BP management, he adds.

Here’s my thought:  since it’s a “management problem,” then the solution should be that we make sure there are no more management problems.  How confident do we feel about this actually happening?

In fact, I spoke to a group of 200-300 hundred at a conference this week, and asked this question:  “how many of you have ever seen a management failure that created problems for your organization?  Practically every hand went up.

In other words, we have not yet learned how to manage with enough precision and effectiveness to insure all desirable outcomes – to assure “achievement of clearly defined objectives.”

Thus we know that management failure does not have an easy fix.  And we know that there have been many major problems caused by management failures in major corporations/companies/organizations over the last few years.

Gary Hamel points out part of the problem in his book The Future of Management. Here’s an excerpt:

Unlike the laws of physics, the laws of management are neither foreordained nor eternal…  Whiplash change, fleeting advantages, technological disruptions, rebellious shareholders – these 21st- century challenges are testing the design limitations of organizations around the world and are exposing the limitations of a management model that has failed to keep pace with the times.

Part of the problem of “these times” is the difficulty of managing all of the complexity (like drilling down nearly 5 miles below the surface of the ocean).  The challenges of such complexity require near flawless management practices.  And we have attained nothing like such near-flawlessness.

When the problem is small, management failure is survivable.  When the problem is massive, like the BP management failure, the consequences can be almost more than we can bear.

Execution And Innovation – Two Failures Of The Gulf Coast Oil Disaster

We live in a “if he/she said it, I won’t even listen” era.  That can be a mistake.  People with whom you usually disagree may have something worthwhile to say. So, before you pass judgment on who said this, listen to what she said.  (In other words, some will be fans; others will be tempted to reject her out of hand.  Please, just consider the argument).

Last night, Rachel Maddow reported from Louisisana, and showed us from up-close the effects of the gulf oil spill.  And, more importantly, she showed us the failures of the containment and clean-up technologies.  Her report was filled with video images of the region.  She was accompanied by scientists/professors who clearly knew the problems discussed.

She visited the Leno show (I saw her report; I did not see the Leno segment), and here is Huffington Post’s summary of the Leno visit:

Throughout the segment, Maddow stressed that the oil industry has not done enough to improve safety technologies in the past 40 years, and that even the limited clean-up technology was not being properly used.

“The oil industry generally…hasn’t come up with any new clean-up technology since before I was born,” she said. “The technology is so lame…But even that lame technology that we have, we’re not doing it right…we could be doing a much better job.”

I cannot get her report out of my head, and concluded that this entire situation provides a snapshot of business success and failure in one very big, tragic story.

If you have read this blog at all; if you read business books at all; you know that there are two absolute essentials for business success:  #1 is innovation, #2 is execution.

#1 – Innovation: Know the next thing to do, and do it better than it was done before, and better than anyone else is doing it now; and keep getting better at it, or someone will pass you by as they get better at it than you are.

#2 – Execution: Whatever you do, do it as well as it can be done.  Do not mess it up.  Execute!

The gulf oil disaster is a failure in both of these business success principles.

By the way, I’m only focusing in this post about the aftermath.  It is also true that the execution in the actual drilling, and especially in proper and careful set up for the use of the blowout preventer, and other “fail-safe” steps, was a classic execution failure.

But this is what Rachel Maddow had to say, and her argument is pretty much a slam-dunk.

Oil inside the booms that were supposed to protect the fragile marsh and wetlands from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico at Pass A Loutre, Louisiana, USA, 30 May 2010.

First, the containment and clean-up technology is not being done well – what we have here is a failure to execute.  She showed video of oil containment boom dislodged, boom washed ashore, boom clearly untended.   The boom, which can be successful, cannot be successful without proper execution in deployment and use.  And in much of the case (way too much of the case, as her report documented) boom is simply not being placed and maintained properly.  Thus, oil has reached the shore in far too many places, even in places where boom has been placed to protect the shore – because of poor execution.

And when the oil reaches the actual shore, then you’ve got real, serious long-term trouble.

Second, and this is most telling – we have made practically no advances, no innovations, in containment and clean-up technologies for decades.  Her reasoning is compelling.  (By the way, Ms. Maddow is Stanford and Oxford Educated (Ph.D.), a Rhodes Scholar – she’s got a hefty mind and a very persuasive, case-building communication style).  She said that the oil companies, and the universities (with endowed teaching positions and funded research programs) have continually researched ways to innovate in the areas of finding oil sources and drilling for that oil.  It is the dollars invested in this research, this innovation, that enables us to now drill down nearly one mile to the ocean floor, and another 3-4 miles below the floor of the ocean, for oil.  Innovation has made this possible.

But the oil companies, the universities, have spent practically no money on research and development to innovate in the area of containment and clean-up.  In other words, we are using 21st century technology for oil finding and oil drilling, and mid-20th century technology in containment and clean-up.

This is a massive failure of innovation – and this failure is now a very expensive failure.

Her report serves as a business success and failure lesson.  Success requires innovation and execution. Failure in either leads to much bigger, very serious failure.  This is a reminder for all of us, regardless of our business.


You can watch the “Busted Booms Fail Louisiana Coast” segment here:

View additional Maddow segments from Louisiana here:

Gawande – Meet the Gulf Oil Disaster

Let’s put it in simple terms.  The more complex the task, the more details that all of the people involved have to get just right, the greater the likelihood that something is going to be missed.  And when that something is missed, something might go wrong – horribly wrong.

I have a simple suggestion.  Everyone involved in deep water drilling needs to have a mandatory session with Atul Gawande.  And then they need to take their best minds and develop their own checklists – and then follow them as though their lives depend on it.  Because they do.  (maybe they already have such checklists — but they certainly did not follow them!).

We now know enough about the Gulf Oil disaster to know that there were multiple warning signs.  They were in such a hurry to get through – to the next assignment, the next drilling location – to get the oil out from beneath the floor of the ocean (way beneath the floor of the ocean), that they simply skipped the warning signs and ignored what they knew they should not ignore.  They needed a drill sergeant nurse, a team committed to the checklist, so that someone could yell, loudly and clearly, “we’ve missed a step…” – so they could stop and get it right.

Here’s how I described Gawande’s book in my synopsis handout:

The world is ever more complex.  We have too much to learn/remember/do.  “This is more airplane than any one person can fly.”  The pressures of the moment, and the built-up pressures of our schedules, means that we need a tool to remember the important tasks – the tasks that if we forget them or do them poorly, it could spell disaster.
We need a checklist.

Here are a couple of quotes from his book, The Checklist Manifesto:

We don’t study routine failures in medicine, teaching, law, government programs, the financial industry, or elsewhere.  We don’t look for the patterns of our recurrent mistakes or devise and refine potential solutions for them…  But we could…
When we look closely, we recognize the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those of great ability and determination.  We know the patterns.  We see the costs.  It’s time to try something else.
Try a checklist.

I have yet to go through a week in surgery without the checklist’s leading us to catch something we would have missed.

The last chapter in the book is called “The Save.” One item on the surgical checklist is to have some pints of blood in the operating room – “just in case.”  This particular operation was supposed to result in “little loss of blood.”  Gawande described how he thought the checklist would help so many doctors, but as for Gawande himself – well, he was good enough, careful enough, that he did not truly need the checklist.  But, he signed on so as not to be a hypocrite.  One of the nurses reported, as the checklist was read in the operating room (operating theater, as it is called), that she had obtained the required pints of blood.  And then…  a bad cut. Blood gushed.  By the end of the entire ordeal, more than two dozen pints of blood had been needed.  The patient lived.  But the initial pints in the room were absolutely critical for the patient’s survival.  The checklist had saved not only the day, but it had saved one precious human life.

I keep thinking of the complexity of our world.  Slate.com has this article up today: Fracking, Oil Sands, and Deep-Water Drilling:  The dangerous new era of “extreme energy, by Daniel Gross.  It describes the complexity, the difficulty, of the tasks we are tackling today to get oil out from deep under the ocean.

Here’s what I think.  The more complex the task, the more critical it is that we have “stop and think” moments – checklists — to avoid the kind of disaster that is continuing to unfold before our eyes.


In this post, I am not weighing in on whether or not we should tackle such dangerous approaches to begin with.  But if we are tackling them, we need to do so with far more care, far more caution – with some very well-designed checklists.

I’ve Been Thinking About Ethical Responsibilities…

Do not, under any circumstances, tell a lie – of either commission or omission.  Do not stretch the truth, exaggerate, or make ___ up to get out of trouble or make yourself look good…
Do not attempt to project different images depending on whom you’re with.  People can spot inauthenticity…  Show up as yourself consistently.  Unless, of course, you are a jackass.

Susan Scott, Fierce Leadership:  A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today


I’ve been thinking about ethical responsibilities…

You remember ethics don’t you: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation. — Moral duty and obligation.  Duty…obligation. In other words this is important stuff here.

First, let me state the obvious. To put it in terms well known from the Bible, “all have sinned, and fall short…”  Including me.  And, I say with confidence but no mean-spirited intent, including you.  So, yes, we all have some work to do in this part of our lives.

But it seems to me that falling short has hit epidemic proportions these days.  I don’t know where to put the blame.  Is it the argument culture that Deborah Tannen saw coming?  (see this earlier post here).  Is it exacerbated by the constant spin required on today’s cable news, which flows from this argument culture mentality?  (see my partly tongue-in-cheek Campbell Brown for CEO! here).  Is it our lawyer-laden era, in which if anyone with any power admits fault, then the liability becomes too great?

Or is it a true, genuine, really, really alarming decline in ethical standards?

I don’t know.

But this is what I think I do know.  We have more and more mistakes being made (from the mining disaster to the Toyota problems to the oil rig disaster) where there seems to be a pattern emerging:

• a serious problem occurs;
• part of the cause of the problem is some form of negligence;
• evidence surfaces that warnings were given, but not adequately heeded;
• and then when the full disaster hits, there is some form of denial and shift of blame  (“it’s not my fault!”)

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande describes how for most of human history, most big problems were issues of ignorance.  We really did not know what caused disease, we really did not know how to successfully treat a heart attack.  But the pendulum has now swung to the other problem:  human ineptitude is now a bigger problem than human ignorance.  We know more – we just don’t deliver on what we know.  And, as Gawande states:

Failures of ignorance we can forgive.  If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort.  But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.

In the latest illustration of this problem, we have a lack of transparency by BP.  They have a genuine, whopping disaster on their hands. The ripple effects are massive, from lives lost, to jobs lost, to the environment damaged, possibly on a massive scale.  But as we follow the BP response, we see the pattern I described above, and during the aftermath we discover that it has taken a lot of pressure – a lot of pressure! – to even get video released of the oil leak for scientists to study.

We all, of course, could give many more examples – from plagiarism by famous authors (there are substantial new plagiarism discoveries regarding now quite discredited author Gerald Posner) to failings of elected officials in categories too numerous to enumerate.

But it really does boil down to this:  our ethical responsibilities are not being treated responsibly.

I’ve grown fond of this phrase:  “you get what you pay attention to.” I think it’s time for companies, and organizations, and elected officials – really, all of us – to pay a lot more attention to our ethical responsibilities.