Chris Christie, 1st September 2008
Year in, year out, time and again I have listened to North Sea leaders saying that safety is getting better and that skills issues really are being tackled. While listening politely, the sceptic in me says, “Ye-e-e-s, but watch what happens to such pledges if commodity prices head for the basement or, more particularly, sink in the quick sand of middle management”.
Given the huge effort made over the 20 years since Piper Alpha, you would think that all companies would have sorted out that most fundamental of issues – achieving effective communications through good management to ensure good HS&E delivery. But one would be wrong.
I’ve had my ear to the ground on the subject again and what has come to light should worry the hell out of the North Sea’s leadership.
Much of it is to do with a lack of follow-through and effective communications by senior management within companies and between companies, including the operator and supply-chain relationship.
What do I mean?
Picture yourself as a foreign operator’s latest North Sea general manager on the usual three-four years tour of duty.
Your instinct tells you that there might be a mismatch between the desires of management and what is actually happening offshore in HS&E terms.
The obvious thing to do is get on a helicopter and take a tour of the installations. Of course, these days, one can’t just snap one’s fingers and an aircraft is immediately available. You have to fit into the scheduled services. One cannot drop in a short notice from out of the blue. Not even the Health & Safety Executive gets to do that.
Having made it offshore, then what? “Cook’s” tour? That’s what you are going to get, most likely. And of course having to fit in with the scheduled services, it means time is strictly limited.
The art is to get off the beaten track … go look for those integrity clues that justify you instinct that what is being asked for is not being wholly delivered upon.
Suppose your hunch is right … you find tatty paintwork, rust … indicators of perhaps less than perfect attention to HS&E let alone a specific instruction that a “smart ship is an efficient ship”. Then what?
The answer is of course to ask around, find out where the disconnects are between policy/specific instructions and “shopfloor reality”.
How is it that the guys offshore get the wrong message, in this instance about ensuring high levels of asset integrity. Well, at Oil & Gas UK’s mid-summer safety breakfast on August 20, that dreaded quagmire known as middle management received justified attention.
I’ve been struggling to learn about energy for almost 20 years and the middle-management issue has raised its head many times during that period. What receives much less attention is unnoticed conflicts of interest engineered at boardroom level, such as finance-related targets versus commitment to infrastructure integrity.
Anyway, you return to the beach and you decide to inquire further. You’re not on a witch-hunt because your management schooling warns you off such an approach.
Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the term “forensic management”. Goggle on Google and there’s nothing. I’ve never seen the term in a textbook.
Forensic management is about finding out after an event what people thought was wanted of them against what was actually required of them. It can be a bit like passing a story around the room verbally. What you end up with is often quite different to the real facts. The question there is, who changed the story? It will be more than one person.
I believe that, as the going gets progressively tougher in the North Sea, so management should become increasingly alert and more forensic in its approach – for the sake of the industry’s reputation and to protect their own hides should there be a major incident that lands them in court.
Frighteningly, this was identified as a major leadership issue more than 20 years ago, and the cure is incredibly simple. It’s called good communications and that is the number-one precursor to achieving a step-change in anything, let alone HS&E.
It’s about ensuring that the messages transmitted successfully run the gauntlet of middle management and, very importantly, are interpreted as intended at the top.
You want a simple example that has nothing to do with safety? It’s one that demonstrates the value of forensic management perfectly.
This is an industry that has pledged to pay all of its suppliers in 30 days, and the senior manager actually genuinely believes that they ought to.
But then you discover that the finance team gets remunerated and incentivised on the basis of cash retained in the business.
And so you have the corporate objective being set and communicated by the leader, but the corporate culture being led by the way the business is managed lower down.
What happens? The leader’s leadership becomes ignored; the leader’s leadership gets dissipated. You can bet your bottom dollar that the same thing is going on under the umbrella of HS&E. I would argue that the statistics are clear evidence of that. Yes, there has been progress with HS&E on the UK Continental Shelf, but its nowhere near as good as it should have been.
So does this mean that top-quartile HS&E really is in the too-difficult box for many leaders, or are they falling prey to people lower down their organisations who hide the real truths.
Perhaps the time has come for bosses to get forensic.
Oh, and by the way, listen to what the shop floor has to say. You might get to the truths a lot faster that way.