More evidence of poor decision-making as a cause for the Gulf of Mexico oil well blowout recently emerged. The sorry situation holds valuable lessons for lab managers.
Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy noted, “It’s rather amazing, almost a year and a half after BP’s Macondo well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, new details continue to emerge…” in his September 16 column. He was commenting on a September 14 Associated Press report that BP petrophysicist Galina Skripnikova reported in a deposition two months ago that she identified a natural gas deposit 300 feet above the oil-bearing formation. This means that substantially more cement should have been prepared and pumped down the wellbore to seal it (and prevent entry of this natural gas into the well bore, which could triggger a blowout).
Some experts believe the lack of additional cement helped cause the disaster while others do not.
Her testimony emerged as part of a lawsuit between BP and Halliburton. BP has been blaming Halliburton for problems with the cementing operation saying it caused the blowout.
Why is this important in an article about decision-making?
Skripnikova made this discovery only the day before the blowout that killed eleven people on the drilling platform. Rather than inform anyone, she flew back from the rig to land. She stated in her deposition that she assumed her information would be passed up the management chain. She apparently did not communicate her findings with the people who would be most affected by her findings: the engineers and others still working on the rig. Time was short and BP was in a rush to plug the well with cement. Her information was only discussed the day after the explosion and blowout.
Steffy, the author of a book on the blowout, wrote, “BP’s fractured management structure and its lack of accountability meant no one was directly responsible for getting this potentially vital information to the people actually drilling the well.”
Lesson 1 of this decision-making disaster is that people who generate knowledge must take responsibility for assuring that it gets communicated to people who can make a timely decision based on this knowledge. The Associated Press report and Steffy’s column indicated this did not happen in this situation. In other situations these people could well be laboratory managers and staff members.
Lesson 2 is that clear lines of communication and authority are essential if decisions are to be made and communicated in a timely way. According to Steffy, this did not occur before the Macondo well blowout. On the laboratory level this means that responsibility rests with all members of the lab team. For example, if a technician knows that a pressure build-up is occurring or an exotherm is developing in a reactor, he needs to know what steps to take to counteract this before a dangerous situation develops. Alternatively, his chemist should be close at hand to be informed of the situation, make a decision, and execute it before a fire or explosion occurs.
Steffy concludes that the situation “shows how seemingly innocuous management decisions can quickly escalate to disaster.” While decisions facing lab managers may not involve human life, they often involve safety or can impact the long-term economic health of the organization.