Friday, June 24, 2011

Rigged Decisions?

The Wall Street Journal reported on June 23, 2011* on an internal investigation conducted by Transocean, owner of the Deepwater Horizon drill rig, that placed much of the blame for the disaster on a series of decisions made by BP.  Is this news?  No, the blame game has been in full swing almost since the time of the rig explosion.  But we did note that Transocean’s conclusion was based on a razor sharp focus on:

“...a succession of interrelated well design, construction, and temporary abandonment decisions that compromised the integrity of the well and compounded the risk of its failure…”**  (p. 10)

Note, their report did not place the focus on the “attitudes, beliefs or values” of BP personnel or rig workers, and really did not let their conclusions drift into the fuzzy answer space of “safety culture”.  In fact the only mention of safety culture in their 200+ page report is in reference to a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) inspection of the drill rig in 2009 which found:

“outstanding safety culture, performance during drills and condition of the rig.” (p. 201)

There is no mention of how the USCG reached such a conclusion and the report does not rely on it to support its conclusions.  It would not be the first time that a favorable safety culture assessment at a high risk enterprise preceded a major disaster.***

We also found the following thread in the findings that reinforce the importance of recognizing and understanding the impact of underlying constraints on decisions:

“The decisions, many made by the operator, BP, in the two weeks leading up to the incident, were driven by BP’s knowledge that the geological window for safe drilling was becoming increasingly narrow.” (p.10)

The fact is, decisions get squeezed all the time resulting in decisions which may be reducing margins but arguably are still “acceptable”.  But such decisions do not necessarily lead to unsafe, much less disastrous, results.  Most of the time the system is not challenged, nothing bad happens, and you could even say the marginal decisions are reinforced.  Are these tradeoffs to accommodate conflicting priorities the result of a weakened safety culture?  Perhaps.  But we suspect that the individuals making the decisions would say they believed safety was their priority and culture may have appeared normal to outsiders as well (e.g., the USCG).  The paradox occurs because decisions can trend in a weaker direction before other, more distinct evidence of degrading culture become apparent.  In this case, a very big explosion.

*  B. Casselman and A. Gonzalez, "Transocean Puts Blame on BP for Gulf Oil Spill," (June 23, 2011).

** "Macondo Well Incident: Transocean Investigation Report," Vol I, Transocean, Ltd. (June 2011).

*** For example, see our August 2, 2010 post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Safety Culture Performance Measures

Developing forward looking performance measures for safety culture remains a key challenge today and is the logical next step following the promulgation of the NRC’s policy statement on safety culture.  The need remains high as safety culture issues continue to be identified by the NRC subsequent to weaknesses developing in the safety culture and ultimately manifesting in traditional (lagging) performance indicators.

Current practice has continued to rely on safety culture surveys which focus almost entirely on attitudes and perceptions about safety.  But other cultural values are also present in nuclear operations - such as meeting production goals - and it is the rationalization of competing values on a daily basis that is at the heart of safety culture.  In essence decision makers are pulled in several directions by these competing priorities and must reach answers that accord safety its appropriate priority.

Our focus is on safety management decisions made every day at nuclear plants; e.g., operability, exceeding LCO limits, LER determinations, JCOs, as well as many determinations associated with problem reporting, and corrective action.  We are developing methods to “score” decisions based on how well they balance competing priorities and to relate those scores to inference of safety culture.  As part of that process we are asking our readers to participate in the scoring of decisions that we will post each week - and then share the results and interpretation.  The scoring method will be a more limited version of our developmental effort but should illustrate some of the benefits of a decision-centric view of safety culture.

Look in the right column for the links to Score Decisions.  They will take you to the decision summaries and score cards.  We look forward to your participation and welcome any questions or comments.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

DNFSB Goes Critical

Hanford WTP
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB)issued a “strongly worded” report* this week on safety culture at the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP).  The DNFSB determined that the safety culture at the WTP is “flawed” and “that both DOE and contractor project management behaviors reinforce a subculture at WTP that deters the timely reporting, acknowledgement, and ultimate resolution of technical safety concerns.”

For example, the Board found that “expressions of technical dissent affecting safety at WTP, especially those affecting schedule or budget, were discouraged, if not opposed or rejected without review” and heard testimony from several witnesses that “raising safety issues that can add to project cost or delay schedule will hurt one's career and reduce one's participation on project teams.”

Only several months ago we blogged about initiatives by DOE regarding safety culture at its facilities.  In our critique we observed, “Goal conflict, often expressed as safety vs mission, should obviously be avoided but its insidiousness is not adequately recognized [in the DOE initiatives]."  Seems like the DNFSB put their finger on this at WTP.  In fact the DNFSB report states:

“The HSS [DOE's Office of Health, Safety and Security] review of the safety culture on the WTP project 'indicates that BNI [Bechtel National Inc.] has established and implemented generally effective, formal processes for identifying, documenting, and resolving nuclear safety, quality, and technical concerns and issues raised by employees and for managing complex technical issues.'  However, the Board finds that these processes are infrequently used, not universally trusted by the WTP project staff, vulnerable to pressures caused by budget or schedule [emphasis added], and are therefore not effective.” 

The Board was not done with goal conflict. It went on to cite the experience of a DOE expert witness:

“The testimony of several witnesses confirms that the expert witness was verbally admonished by the highest level of DOE line management at DOE's debriefing meeting following this session of the hearing.  Although testimony varies on the exact details of the verbal interchange, it is clear that strong hostility was expressed toward the expert witness whose testimony strayed from DOE management's policy while that individual was attempting to adhere to accepted professional standards.”

This type of intimidation need not be, and generally is not, so explicit. The same message can be sent through many subtle and insidious channels which are equally effective.  It is goal conflict of another stripe - we refer to it as “organizational stress” - where the organizational interests of individuals - promotions, performance appraisals, work assignments, performance incentives, etc. - create another dimension of tension in achieving safety priority.  It is just as real and a lot more personal than the larger goal conflicts of cost and schedule pressures.

*  Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Recommendation 2011-1 to the Secretary of Energy "Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant" (Jun 9, 2011).