Sharing worst practice

18th August 2011


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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Management ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • Benchmarking ,
  • EMS

Author

IEMA

Following pledges by Oil & Gas UK to ensure the sector learns the lessons of a leak from a Shell platform off the coast of Scotland, Sarah-Jayne Russell argues that honesty is definitely the best policy.

Nobody likes to be reminded of their mistakes; whether it’s a bad haircut, a foolish car purchase or a cringemaking foot-in-mouth moment. To err may be human, but we all like to hope that we are slightly less human than everyone else.

Then when we do make an error, we often work to quickly solve the problem and forget it ever happened, we do not generally broadcast it to our friends and colleagues. The same is frequently true not only of organisations, but of the departments, divisions and sites within them.

But while no one wants the embarrassment of admitting they got something wrong, mistakes and close calls are the best places to learn how not to do something in the future – just take a look at the importance of near-miss reporting in health and safety.

Whether it’s a breakdown of processes that leads to an environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon, or a failure to engage staff that means a project to cut waste levels misses its target, frank communication about the problem and its causes could help to ensure such issues are avoided in future.

The trouble is this involves a change of mindset for both individuals and organisations. Admitting that something went wrong and describing what happened mustn’t be seen as a weakness but as an opportunity, just like sharing best practice.

If one department learns that its staff failed to carry out a vital check because they didn’t understand its purpose, it should prompt the whole organisation to examine staff training and engagement and its wider management system.

Disasters like the 2005 Buncefield fire show that organisations often start out with adequate safety devices and procedures but, over time, frequent staff changes and poor communication and training can erode understanding of their role in the control system and they can be bypassed or poorly maintained.

In such cases, where details are made public, all organisations, regardless of their sector are reminded of the importance of maintaining and refreshing their systems and processes.

Imagine what organisations could learn if they shared information about problems that are currently never made public; if they shared bad as well as best practice.

It will be interesting to see how much Shell is willing to discuss with the rest of its sector from its investigation into what caused the leak at the Gannet Alpha platform.

Expecting businesses to reveal mistakes to their competitors, and their stakeholders, is perhaps too much to hope for, but sharing lessons inside our own organisations is not; it’s sound business practice. Senior managers must take the lead in encouraging the disclosure of problems and what was learned from them in a positive culture of learning from mistakes and moving on, rather than one of finger pointing and assigning blame.


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