Saturday, June 19, 2010

BP: Safety vs Profit

BP has been in the hot seat for their safety record for much longer than just the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  Yet, we hear the management of BP talk about how they have been striving for at least the last few years to instill a corporate culture that places a high priority on safety.  How can there be such a disconnect between what management says it wants and what happens in the day-to-day operations in the company?

BP is a corporation.  Corporations exist to make a profit.  Some would argue that the only reason they should be allowed to exist is to maximize the return to the shareholders.  If they are not making a high enough profit, the shareholders will desert them and the stock price will fall to a level that makes the company a takeover target.  So BP must make a profit to continue to exist.  But profit that comes with too much risk from civil or criminal sanctions or from lawsuits from aggrieved parties is not in the long-term interest of the company.  Safety and corporate citizenship fall into the category of activities that protect the corporation.  No matter how good it looks or how much companies like to tout their citizenship, in the end this is all corporate self-interest.  As consumers and citizens, we understand the bargain because we want the company to prosper to create jobs, support communities, and pay dividends to us as investors.

BP surely has - and always did have - a corporate safety program.  No company of their age and scope could be without one.  There are employees at BP whose only job is safety monitoring and training.  BP facilities world-wide have safety signs on employee bulletin boards and some level of safety training is a part of every technical employee's job requirements.  I don't know this for a fact, of course.  I have never worked for BP.  But I worked for a large multinational corporation for thirty years and I know that we paid a lot of attention to safety because we had to.  The price of not paying attention to safety was risking the corporation's existence.

Employees are not stupid.  They know that accidents are bad for the company and bad for them personally if they are involved.  But employees also know that the next pay raise or the next promotion - or even keeping your job - is based on performance.  Delivering the goods faster and cheaper is always viewed as a positive on the next performance appraisal.  Safety is a box to be checked.  As long as things are going well, there is nothing to be gained from putting safety ahead of profit.  Accidents by their nature are unpredictable.  If people knew there was going to be an accident, they would never cut the corner they are about to cut or take the cheaper, faster route rather than the safer but more costly route.  Employees know all of this.  Every day, people make decisions calculated to maximize their own gain, either in terms of pay or position.  Most of the time, people are not even aware of making the decisions consciously.  They just know that their last performance appraisal wasn't so hot and they feel the pressure to get more work done or they saw a colleague get promoted for taking the faster route.

Somewhere I read that airline safety is built on the graves of the crash victims.  That is true of all safety.  Until we experience the full force of an accident's outcome we cannot know just how bad it is really going to be.  Lots of organizations perform risk analyses on their operations.  NASA certainly did it before the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  But every major accident has a series of unique events leading up to the disaster and each of those events is in itself a small, almost trivial, event.  "For want of a nail... "  

I am not defending BP here.  I am just trying to point out how these things happen.  The thing that matters here is that senior management makes safety a real priority and does not treat it as something that is costly and a nuisance but needs to be done.  BP is experiencing the costs of not just the Deepwater Horizon accident but a culture that goes back years, maybe decades.  It will take a lot of work to change it.   Today is a good day for them to begin taking it seriously.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Technology's Impact on the Amateur

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a piece on NPR that focused on a new documentary that is out called The Mighty Uke:  The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog.  The documentary focuses on the resurgence of the ukulele as a serious instrument, driven by such popular artists as George Harrison and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's late 90's hit "Somewhere Over the Rainbow".  The story brought back memories for me as well because the baritone ukulele was the first instrument I learned to play.  It was fun and it was the beginning of a lifetime of pleasure I have derived from playing the guitar and banjo.

But the thing that caught my ear that relates to this blog had to do with the effect of the record player on home musicians. Tony Coleman, the documentary film maker, put it this way:

For centuries, music was an integral part of our lives. All of us played music or knew someone who did," Coleman says. "Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the record player came along and all of a sudden we weren't good enough. We were encouraged to listen, to be passive listeners. And I think that we lost something very fundamental to our souls: making music together.

I wonder how often technology intimidates the amateur?  Before sound recordings, it was easier to enjoy amateur performances without criticism because there were no professional standards with which to compare.  People could still find satisfaction in creating a passable version of either classical or popular music.  Once the recorded professional emerged, people quietly put their instruments back in the case.

The same is probably true for amateur theater.  People used to gather in living rooms to read plays as a form of recreation.  Motion pictures, radio, and television raised the bar on what was considered an acceptable performance.  I would bet that even computer software has seen the ranks of the amateur thinned as the level of professional results goes up.

Unfortunately, we are built to compare our results with those of others.  In many cases, the reference point is set way too high because we have access to see and hear such professional skills.  How many people have forgone the joy of creation because they think their own abilities are so flawed?  Technology can both give and it can take.  This is one of those places where the creation process is at least as important as the artistic product.  

Now I have to go tune up my ukulele. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

Remote Technology With Disastrous Consequences

I'm back!  After a month away dealing with all of the thousands of details of moving, we are finally in our new home in North Carolina.  Enough of the boxes are now unpacked -- there are many, many more -- that I can start to think once again about Technology Almanac.  I have missed having the time to write  and I hope enough of you kept the link active while I have been offline.

The technology story that has been dominating the news for the last six weeks is, of course, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.  It isn't known for sure yet just what happened to cause the explosion and sinking of the drill ship but when the details come out I am sure it will look remarkably like every major accident: a series of cumulative, small errors that collectively set up a very big, negative outcome.  If you have had trouble envisioning all the various attempts to cap the well, I would recommend you take a look at a really nice graphic on the New York Times website.  It shows all the various attempts that have been made over the last six weeks to stem the flow of oil.

This story got me to thinking about a larger theme that has emerged as we develop ever more sophisticated technologies: remote technology.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind.

  • We are now able to land and control a vehicle on the surface of Mars and have it explore the soil with remote shovels, probes, and test instruments.
  • We are able to perform surgeries without opening the patient's body by using small cameras and laparoscopic instruments.
  • We have bomb disabling equipment that can be remotely controlled to deactivate an explosive.
  • We have drone military aircraft controlled by a pilot seated ten thousand miles away from the scene of the conflict can use to attack an enemy target.
If I thought about it awhile longer, I am sure I could come up with more.  The theme of all these is that the site of control is separated from the site of effect.  In the surgery example, the surgeon can quickly abandon his laparoscopic approach and revert to traditional open techniques if he or she runs into a big problem.  But the Predator drone and the Mars lander cannot be brought back under local control.  There is just no way to be "local".  The same is true of the deep-water oil wells.  There is no way for humans to be able to go down there and work directly on the equipment.

Remote technology is an absolutely terrific advance in cases where the benefits outweigh the risks.  If the Mars lander craps out, we lose scientific data and have an expensive piece of junk cluttering up the Martian surface.  But some of these technologies can have catastrophic consequences if there is a failure at the site of action.  I am sure that BP, Transocean, and Halliburton all thought they had adequate contingency plans in place to prevent this disaster.  The very presence of a Blowout Preventer shows that they anticipated such events.  But people are people and businesses constantly put pressure on those on the front lines to reduce costs and increase profits.  The head of BP would never consciously tell the people on the drill ship to cut corners that would compromise safety.  But the subtle pressure to deliver results on time and below costs leads to shortcuts.  So does complacency. Most of the time, you can get away with it.  They did for twenty years.  But it only takes one accident to put in stark relief the consequences of taking the chance.  Even though the odds of failure might have been small, the cost of failure was enormous.  That ratio calls for extreme prudence.

I hope they can get this thing under control sooner rather than later.  And I hope that there is a very thorough analysis of everything leading up to the disaster before any further deep-water drilling is allowed in any U.S. waters.  You can be sure that if we return to deep-water drilling, the cost of drilling those wells will be much, much higher to factor in better risk containment technology.  But the cost, whatever it might be, will be cheaper than the costs to the environment and the people whose lives are directly effected by the oil that is now polluting their waters and fouling their shores.  And it might just make us think twice about all the oil that we so thoughtlessly consume.