With some labeling the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as the worst environmental disaster the USA has ever experienced, it’s worth looking at what we know so far about efforts to deal with the spill for performance improvement lessons. As I look at what I’ve heard about this disaster, several critical lessons come to my mind.
- Ignore process at your own peril. There has been such an emphasis on “action” and “leadership” (both by private and public sector organizations) that we’ve seen lots of money, people and activity–but often at cross-purposes. Throwing money and resources at any problem is usually ineffective when there is no clear alignment around the process connecting all of the specific tasks.
- It’s a lot easier to prevent a problem than to fix a mistake. The Gulf Oil spill illustrates this point so well–far better and easier to prevent the rig blowout than to clean up tar balls from beaches and try to bathe birds.
- Being clear about the desired outcome is critical. Those of you knowledgeable about performance improvement know how critical outcomes are as a means of providing direction. Unfortunately, everyone assumed there was a clear purpose (clean up the spill) when actually there was tremendous disagreement among directions. Some groups argued for booms to corral the oil (which doesn’t address oil beneath the surface). Others argued for strong use of chemicals to eat the oil or break it down (which was opposed by others who felt this could produce worse environmental impacts than the oil itself). The disagreements were more than just differences on tactics but instead reflected major (and often incompatible) directions.
- Data matters. Throughout the first month of the disaster, there was a consistent inability to answer some of the most basic questions like: approximately how much oil is escaping daily, what backup or contingency plans are reasonable if the first cap fails, what are the environmental impact of the oil dispersants being used, and what percentage of the oil is remaining beneath the surface? Without some kind of data, policy decisions were being made on the basis of educated guesses and anecdotes.
What other performance insights have you gotten from this mess?