BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

Summary: Reports suggest that several IT failures may have contributed to the BP oil spill. More importantly, the spill represents a deep state of failed leadership inside BP.

TOPICS: CXO, IT Employment

As the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill continues to grow, reports suggest that several IT failures may have contributed to the problem. More importantly, the spill represents a deep state of failed leadership inside BP.

ComputerWorld UK says:

BP has said the accident “was brought about by the failure of a number of processes, systems and equipment”. It added: “There were multiple control mechanisms— procedures and equipment—in place that should have prevented this accident or reduced the impact of the spill.” These did not succeed.

The “failure” of a key emergency disconnect system was noted in a committee memo summarizing the early investigation. That system, if effective, would have kicked in to stop the oil from flowing, but signals may not have reached the blowout preventer because of the explosion.

There were also problems with a further automatic closure system, or deadman switch, that should have closed off the preventer if those connections were lost. This also failed. The testing and maintenance of the blowout preventer technology is also in question.

BP additionally experienced “failure” with interventions from its remote operated vehicles, which struggled to operate the shear rams to cut and seal the pipe. The reason for this, too, has not been established.

Merely pointing the finger at technology problems does little to explain the underlying causes for failure. Preventing future problems of a similar nature depends on deeper analysis, which almost always involves human decision-making as the key driver.

In an excellent and highly relevant article, Harvard Business School professor, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, describes the role of failed leadership and dysfunctional culture as contributors to the BP oil spill:

BP must also clean up an organizational and cultural mess.

A true leader faces facts, presents a situation fully to all stakeholders, and models accountability. A leader does not attempt to minimize the extent of a problem or promise action faster than can be delivered. A true leader sets appropriate expectations and delivers. He or she does not duck responsibility by shifting the bulk of the blame to someone else.

A company can outsource the work but not the responsibility for it. One failure surely was the failure to apply high standards to suppliers and partners. Companies are now expected to take end-to-end responsibility for what they produce and sell. The SODDI defense ("some other dude did it") doesn't get CEOs of major companies off the hook.

Lapses seem to have been everywhere; e.g., in preparedness, alert systems, communication, and worst case scenario plans.

My take. Multiple points of weakness generally play a significant role in causing large-scale failures.

To prevent failure, therefore, management must establish a culture that encourages employees to question conventional wisdom, look more closely at potential risk factors, and accept responsibility when situations go wrong.

High rates of project failure attest to the difficulty of accomplishing this critical task.

Please share your thoughts on leadership's role in complicated failure situations.

[Image of oil spill controlled burn from the US Coast guard. It's worth noting that BP's corporate image gallery relating to the spill only shows happy images of collaboration, success, and results; that's rather misleading, don't you think?]

Topics: CXO, IT Employment

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  • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

    It appears for BP leadership failure is an option. They have a history of safety violations and fatal accidents for which they have paid millions in fines because the fines are cheaper than doing it right. This type of culture starts at the top and is pushed down the chain of command.
    • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

      @ricardoac Amen!
    • Perhaps it is time to make the fines so expensive

      @ricardoac: that it is more economic to do it the right way. Of course the only good way of doing that is to get businesses out our government, by the elimination of lobbyist, and preventing big corporations from being able to influence government through the first amendment.

      Alas those are some big uphill battles.
      • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

        @JM1981 Yup. Good luck with that. And I think last January, they rescinded the cap on campaign contributions by businesses. Huzzah.
  • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

    BP is so used to crapping up the world they don't know how to stop, even when the spotlight turns on them. Its of their nature. Now they're going to burn off 425,000 gallons of oil per day "at sea". Nice euphimism MSM uses to mean, "out of sight, out of mind" - which is where BP always hides its messes. If this isn't a criminal corporate culture, I don't know what is. No lecture from RMK is gonna fix it; a jail house door slamming shut will. The cell next to the Enron crew's would do fine.
  • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

    So much naivety out there. It was an accident, they happen. In business you do what you can and have to achieve a balance, it comes down to time and money. With oil what will the customer pay. There are world oil companies out there now who have taken less care than B.P, have a go at them !
    • less care than BP?

      According to OSHA, two BP refineries were responsible for 97% of the willful violations from June 2007 to Feb 2010.

      What's naive is thinking that BP just got unlucky. The cement was rushed; they refused to test the quality of the cement work before replacing the mud with water; the blowout preventer is rated at having a ~50% chance of success on the thick pipe used undersea (and 72 BOPs have failed in the past decade); BP overrode the crew's warnings right before the explosion that they were being asked to rush the job. The more we learn, the more surprising it is that something like this hasn't happened before.
    • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

      @rc@... This was no accident. BP Management argued with and forced Transocean to cut corners on drilling. They had absolutely no regard for the massive destruction they were risking. You are naive if you think this was an accident. This was a calculated evil, they took a risk with the livliehoods of tens of thousands of people and millions if not billions of wildlives. The people who made the decision leading up to this catastrophy most likeley do not have the capacity to care about the death and detruction they have created otherwise it would not have happened.
  • RE: BP oil spill: Leadership and IT failure

    And failure continues to happen with the cleanup. As the USA doesn't allow "foreign" dredgers to help out to protect its own market. Efficient companies with the latest high tech equipment and lots of dredging experience (Middle East, Suez, Argentina,...) are simply not allowed.
    This is also a leadership failure from the current US administration. Rather than protecting the economy, they should protect ecology for the citizens.