Commenter Boonton has on a few occaisons mused about complex industrial accidents and the avoidence of the same.

Complex project development, in a book which came out in the 80s (Have Fun At Work, by Mr Livingstone) was an interesting read. The main thesis of the book was that complex projects (those are too large basically to fit in one smart persons brain … and he gave specific concrete ways to recognize those projects) fail. They all fail (or at the best have horrible delays and massive cost overruns). Much of the book devoted itself to orienting tech/engineer personel to recognize if your project was one of those which would fail and how to prevent that from career or psychic injury to self. As a sidelight he noted the only way that complex projects succeed. Complex projects succeed if heirarchical information pathways are removed and replaced with a model in which everyone can talk (and does talk) to everone. The cannonical such project is the Lockheed Skunkworks, which developed the SR-71, the U-2, and stealth combat aircraft. In their working environment, aerodynamicists and systems engineers sat next to draftsmen and machinists. “Can this …?” questions didn’t filter up and down the chain but you would ask the guy who might know the answer directly.

Big systems with complex working parts are put in place all over the world. Refineries, airplans, chemical plants, nuclear power plants and so on are all complex working systems. One way in which one might approach minimizing the occurance of complex accidents is to follow the Kelly Johnson/Skunkworks approach and shift it from project development to ongoing system operations. Why isn’t this done?

One reasons might be tied to morale. The Skunkworks team was a high morale operation. They had an impossible (basically) cutting edge project. They worked rediculous hours because of their excitement and the demands of the project and the basic urge human urge for success and to win, defined in this case as completion of the project, to scale that technical mountain. How can this translate to a multi-decade task of keeping equipment running safely, a far more mundane and routine task? If one identifies a clear difference in the two tasks as one of morale. High morale is essential for the operation of a non-heirarchical task/team project. High morale might also be an essential telling point in the operation of a long term operational facillity if one were to attempt to shift it to a more skunkworks-like approach to management. You can’t do that without high morale.

Ultimately government “regulation” of industrial workplace might be better served not trying to pretend it knows better how to drill offshore, run nuclear plants, and so on. It can on the other hand, have a better shot a spotting any number of ways in which workplaces are poisoned by poor morale and other working conditions conducive to failure (reckless risk taking has its own signature on morale). The point is, inspectors might be better served watching dynamics of workplace (social) chemistry and less on technical questions which they have, likely, less (or captive) expertise (not to speak of other agenda).  

Filed under: Economics & TaxesEnergyEnvironmentGovernmentMark O.

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!