Decision Making Chaos on the Deepwater Horizon

Posted on Posted in Corporate Culture, Managing Change, Team Development

I have long been an advocate for team decision-making, but more importantly, for decision-making appropriate to the situation. It appears clear now that the Deepwater Horizon, the Transocean drilling rig under contract with BP, suffered from poorly designed decision processes.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that

“The chain of command broke down at times during the crisis, according to many crew members. They report that there was disarray on the bridge and pandemonium in the lifeboat area, where some people jumped overboard and others called for boats to be launched only partially filled.

The vessel’s written safety procedures appear to have made it difficult to respond swiftly to a disaster that escalated at the speed of the events on April 20. For example, the guidelines require that a rig worker attempting to contain a gas emergency had to call two senior rig officials before deciding what to do. One of them was in the shower during the critical minutes, according to several crew members.”

An important consideration when establishing team decision-making processes is to clarify which decisions should be command, which consultative, and which should be consensus decisions.

Acknowledging the legitimacy and critical need for effective command decision making is the only way to gain an acceptance for the situational appropriateness of consultative and consensus decisions. In any environment in which there is a potential for crisis it is essential that there is a well defined and well rehearsed command decision process. It is insane that a rig worker attempting to contain a gas emergency would have to call two senior rig officials before deciding what to do. That is the equivalent of a marine on the ground in a combat zone coming under fire and having to go two levels above to get instructions to take action. That is a certain way to get your marines killed and lose a war. It was a certain way to get eleven rig workers killed, also.

Soldiers on the ground are trained to take action, to take initiative, to improvise, and are drilled in those actions that require instantaneous responses. Bureaucratic control is not the same as effective command. In a crisis it must be assumed that the means of communication are incapacitated, that individual leaders have been cut off from the action on the ground. Those who can and must act must know that they are expected to take initiative and they must be trained in the appropriate responses.

You can use consultative and consensus decision making to arrive at the best procedures… long before the crisis. In the crisis, everyone must know who in command, who can take action, and what action must be taken immediately. This is a good time for every organization to study this negative case and use it as an opportunity to review your own crisis management procedures.

2 thoughts on “Decision Making Chaos on the Deepwater Horizon

  1. Larry- Good blog. Trust it will generate much thoughtful collaborative exchange.

    As a former USN LCDR and pilot, I couldn’t agree more.

    One point I would add is that the practice of subcontracting crucial and critical operations further dilutes command/control functionality and impedes, if not halts, decisions where time is of the essence.

    Although we may find out, a cynical opinion is that this was done to to obfuscate responsibility as well as to save costs. It leads to another logical question of greater dimension where and when should the capitalist drive for corporate profit, be tempered if not led by “doing the right thing”?

  2. Steve, there is not doubt that this incident raises a lot of questions. The drive for profit, versus safety and environmental concern, have always presented a tension. Managers are pulled in two directions at the same time. In most cases I think managers do make the right decisions. But, as this proves, it only takes one bad decision to create a huge disaster.

    Like the fall of Enron and Arthur Anderson, this will change behavior. There is nothing like a good hanging in the village square to focus the mind. BP has lost (as of last night) 70 billion dollars in market cap as a result of this and there is serious talk about taking into receivership all of their U.S. based assets. If that doesn’t make an impression in the board room, than nothing will.

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