Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Fixing Blame for the Deepwater Horizon Blowout is a Bad Idea

Much of the news coverage about the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout focuses on who is to blame and who is trying to avoid blame or pass it on to someone else.  There is a consensus that BP has a lot of the blame.  The Minerals Management Service (MMS) of the U. S. Department of Interior gets a lot of blame, particularly due to a scandal during the Bush Administration alleging sex and cocaine parties in which the MMS and the oil companies participated. Democrats blame Bush, because it happened on his watch. 
Interior Secretary Salazaar and President Obama are blamed because they weren’t quick enough to clean house at MMS.  Everyone, including the U. S. Coast Guard gets blamed because the capping of the well to stop the spewing oil and natural gas is taking so long.
Being quick to find blame does not help much.  It is much more productive to ask questions such as:  Why did the explosion happen?  Why did the blowout preventer fail? To what extent were the problems caused by equipment, procedures, information, materials used, and the way people were trained and supervised?  What short-term and long-term effects are this crisis and the response going to have not only on the coast, but also on the Gulf of Mexico itself?  What can we learn from this experience if there is ever a blowout again anywhere in the world?
Some drilling rigs are already being moved to other oil fields. What are the risks of more blowouts because of regulations elsewere that are lax or non-existent? I am not taking a position here.  I thnik the question deserves attention.  What kinds of regulation, based on risk analysis, not emotion, will give us real protection from this ever happening again?  What can be done to substantially improve the response if it does happen? These are a few of the questions that we need to asked to answer an over-arching question: What do we need to do so this never happens again?
Fortunately, many of these questions are being asked, often without much fanfare or attention.  This work is the important part of the response to the blowout, along with containing and permanently capping the runaway well. It is hard to tell if we are asking them enough.
World-class companies tend to be slow to fix blame.  There is a often repeated story of Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM calling in an employee who was involved in an error that cost the company ten million dollars.  He questioned him about what had happened and how it happened.  Finally, he thanked the employee and told him he could go.
“Aren’t you going to fire me?” asked the employee.
“Why would I fire you?  I’ve just invested ten million dollars in you education.” Watson replied.
Seeking whom to blame takes our attention away from learning from a problem.  As Masaaki Imai likes to say, “A problem is a mountain of treasure.”  There is always much that we can learn from it.
There is a huge amount we can learn from the Deepwater Horizon blowout.  Let’s focus on that. In our workplaces let’s also learn instead assigning blame.

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