Blink Twice if You Need Help

10 February 2017

I laughed out loud at this American satirical comment directed at Melania Trump, the wife of the Donald, the world’s most powerful man. I am not however aware of any response from the First Lady, which could actually be for a number of reasons:

  • She wasn’t aware of it, never saw it.
  • She didn’t understand it, and what it was telling her.
  • It was just another message amongst all the other messages she was receiving.
  • She’d get around to it later.
  • She chose to ignore it.

After I finished laughing, I began to think about other sorts of messages; messages that are not written, spoken or communicated in any of the ‘normal’ communication methods we apply in the workplace. These messages are common place in the offshore Oil & Gas industry, where I have worked for many years now. How do we respond to them? Do we fail to respond for some of the same reasons listed above?

In the North Sea we refer to many of our offshore assets (installations) as ‘mature.’ This means that due to a combination of design, good operation, inspection, maintenance, change management, and a touch of good fortune, these assets are operating well beyond their original design life, and in some cases many years beyond. These assets are corroding, suffering from fatigue, leaking, seeping and in some cases falling to bits… and they are communicating with us!

Every gas leak is a message. Corrosion growth and every undesired seep of oil tells us something. Many of the objects that drop and fall from height are telling us about the physical integrity of our installations. At one previous place of employment, I became increasingly frustrated at the frequently used terminology of ‘minor’ or ‘small’ gas leaks. A gas leak is a gas leak, is a gas leak... they are all the result of some form of integrity failure. ‘Small’ gas leaks are telling us that something is wrong, and that a larger one is very possible.

We walk passed corrosion... it always looks the same. We treat oil seeps and ‘small’ gas releases as almost inevitable in our ‘mature’ assets. Things fall off and drop from height... how seriously do we take them? What are the messages they are telling us? Thinking about this took me back to Professor Andrew Hopkins and his work on Mindful Organisations; how would a truly mindful organisation respond to these messages?

Hopkins tells us that Mindful Organisations require mindful leaders who:

  • Are preoccupied with the possibility of something going wrong.
  • Know that bad news does not travel upwards….. they worry about continuous good news.
  • Lie awake at night worrying and feel a chronic unease about how well systems are working.
  • Engage with and talk to employees at their workplace.
  • Treat small problems as symptoms of deeper issues that are potentially lurking undetected.

Personally I would like to think that my boss, despite being preoccupied with potential failures, got a good night’s sleep and was able to find time in the working day to worry about how well systems work! Never-the-less, the messages about ‘something going wrong’ ... ‘continuous good news’ ... and ‘treating small problems as symptoms of deeper issues’ are critical to the safe operation of our mature assets.

Our mature assets are indeed talking to us; they are giving us clues, evidence and direction. Many North Sea operators recognise these messages for what they are and respond to them with sound systems, competent people and equipment. These organisations are culturally aware, mindful of the risks involved, and constantly receiving and responding to the messages their installations communicate to them. Are we all listening and watching for these communications?

Key learnings for me include:

  • There is no such thing as a small gas leak.
  • Corrosion growth is slow but certain, unless we act.
  • We didn’t design things to fall from height, so when they do it’s a problem.
  • We have to be mindful, alert, curious and aware.

In closing... we don’t have the options that Mrs Trump has:

  • We can’t say were not aware of it or never saw it.
  • We can’t say that we didn’t understand.
  • We can’t say that is was just another message, and we get so many.
  • We can’t put it off until later.
  • We can’t choose to ignore it.

We are all accountable...

Ref: Creating a mindful organisation: Prof Andrew Hopkins 2002.

Also see more postings in the Risk Dimensions Blog.