White Swan Events - Some issues are so common as to be predictable, indeed inevitable… unless competent individuals are in control. Get in charge.

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Courtesy of Richard MacLean & Associates, LLC

Abstract

With all the facts laid out in hindsight, it is easy to claim that the BP oil gusher was predictable.  It was not.  Disasters of this magnitude are called 'black swan' events because they are so rare and unique that they are difficult to imagine and foresee.  That said, the precedents leading up to black swan events follow a well-known pattern.

And the processes that create 'routine' environmental issues are even more predictable - as common as white swans.  Most environmental issues do not attract national attention, but white swan events may ruin careers, cost millions in fines and remediation expenses, endanger or take lives, and ruin local ecosystems.
 
Be it a black or white swan often have the same underlying theme of a lack of cohesive leadership either just before the eruption stage is reached or in the wake of a crisis when everyone is responding.  You may be in a perfect position to observe the warning signs and take a leadership position to either prevent a white or black swan event or spearhead mitigation should an issue erupt.

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As I write this column, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig oil gusher continues with no end in sight. As more and more information comes out, it is impossible not to second guess every decision that led up to the worst environmental disaster in America’s history. Some may even proclaim, “What were they thinking?!”

With all the facts laid out in hindsight, it is easy to claim that this disaster was obvious and predictable. It was not. Disasters of this magnitude are called “black swan” events because they are so rare and unique that they are difficult to imagine and foresee with any degree of certainty.

That said, the precedents leading up to black swan events follow a well-known pattern. In this column in January 2008, and again in January/February 2010, I laid out the precursors that consistently lead to catastrophes.1 Written long before the BP Gulf Coast oil leak, after reading these two columns it becomes all too apparent how this leak occurred.

Obviously, I did not have so much as an inkling of the specifics, but the processes that were described in these columns and the conditions leading up to the disaster are eerily definite. Other disasters following these same patterns are marching on their way to commencement as you read this column.

When Disaster Hits

Just as the precursors leading up to black swan events are oh-so predictable, the processes that create “routine” environmental issues or exacerbate the resolution of catastrophes are even more predictable—as common as white swans. Most environmental issues do not attract national attention, but white swan events may ruin careers, cost millions in fines and remediation expenses, endanger or take lives, and ruin local ecosystems.

Environmental catastrophes can still occur because there may be a near total absence of information that defines the ramifications of specific substances or operating practices that later turn out to be very harmful to the environment. In the case of the BP leak, it was the understanding of the limitations of shutoff equipment operating at one mile below the surface. But most often, routine environmental issues—the white swans—are almost always the result of a lack of awareness, competency, inattentiveness, and/or an ambiguous chain of command
or responsibility.

The components of a superior safety program serve to illustrate this point: responsibility for safety is relentlessly instilled for both oneself and one’s fellow workers; everyone is trained and retrained; everyone has the power to immediately stop unsafe practices or operations; safety statics are vigilantly reported up through the top of the organization; near misses are observed, reported, and used as learning experiences to stop serious accidents; and management both gives out the safety awards or raises hell if the leading indicators are amiss.

Contrast this with the all-too-often conditions present within some organizations: a select few individuals are viewed as the “environmental people”; employee training may be limited to the most basic issues, such as where wastes are disposed; even top environmental managers may feel unable to stop an operation without suffering serious career repercussions; the focus is on complying with environmental regulations rather than on achieving corporate responsibility; management only monitors compliance-related metrics (which can be more of an indicator of luck and regulatory inactivity than any real measure of performance excellence); and management is focused on green product marketing and enhancing brand image.

Customer comments

  1. By Steve Viederman on

    WHITE SWANS ARE PREDICTABLE. SURPRISES THAT ARE PREDICTABLE ARE APTLY CALLED 'PREDICTABLE SURPRISES" BY MAX BAZERMAN OF HBS. ENOUGH OF SWANS, BLACK, MOST OF WHICH ARE NOT UNUSUAL EVENTS, BUT QUITE PREDICTABLE: THE CREDIT BUBBLE, BP IN THE GULF....