Lessons from an Oil Rig for Change and Leadership

11 Apr

A recent opinion article (full article here) on Oilpro.com highlights the need for safety culture to address human needs. Oilrigs are incredibly high risk environments where decision making, experience, expertise, procedures and leadership are essential to staying safe and completing tasks effectively. However, the Oilpro.com article identifies a trap people and organisations can easily fall into when confronted with high risk environments-the sensation that greater levels of procedures, micro management, and bureaucracy reduce mistakes, errors, and accidents. This trap contains the implicit assumption that narrowing the capacity for people to exercise judgement, improves performance. However, this approach has negative consequences for safety, leadership and managing change whilst building up potentially much bigger problems for the future (see Taleb, 2013, for a good overview of this concept).

The OIlpro.com article attends to how overuse of procedures and technology dulls the attentiveness of human operators. The author contrasts two types of oilrig work to make the point-

“Rig roughnecks and roustabouts repeat the same procedure over again for 12 hours straight without mistake, partly because then type of work has enough mix of eye, hand, foot and body movement to keep their mind occupied”

Compared to

“…systems operators no longer have a chance to patrol the plant; they must sit still in the same spot, staring into computer screens for hours at a time.”

The first description provides an opportunity for frontline workers to develop sense making of complex, non -routine situations, situational awareness and role expertise. These type of roles create tacit skills, as frontline workers develop fine-tuned heuristic methods of problem solving.

The second description represents distance between the human worker and their environment. This situation creates the opposite conditions for developing expertise. The human worker is cut off from the quality environmental feedback stemming from decisions. This separates the worker from the fine discriminations available from being directly on the frontline, leaving them with nothing to do but follow abstract procedure.

When an organisation introduces systems which potentially wash out expertise, it also dulls the organisation to small deviations in routines which could lead to large consequences; along with the methods to tackle these deviations in their infancy. It’s similar to beautifully redecorating a building whilst removing all fire detectors and fire extinguishers. Things look a lot better to the casual observer, but are in fact significantly more dangerous. The improvements are superficial and aesthetic.

The introduction of systems which separate workers from the opportunity to develop expertise, also reduces improvisation and innovation, and this has significant consequences for leadership. All procedures and routines will hit their limit. When procedures and routines hit their limit, they often require intuitive leadership- people who use experience and expertise to take control of a situation, and have the confidence and mandate to improvise when necessary. When procedures take precedence, problems are migrated up the hierarchy. This leaves frontline workers waiting for instructions from someone separated from a developing situation. This robs frontline workers of the opportunity to develop and practice leadership.

The article continues

“Leaders know that people want a sense of control of their work environment. Workers don’t want top down edicts telling them how they MUST conduct their work, to be announced by a memo stuck on a notice board. Work procedures must be constantly questioned, reviewed and modified”.

If leaders are looking to effectively manage change and build an adaptive (and resilient) organisation, then the experiences and expertise of frontline workers need to play a central role. Change works most effectively when it supports and enhances what people do well, not wash it out with top down, abstract systems and structures.

To achieve this, frontline workers need to operate in conditions which allows them to develop meaningful expertise (see above), and then this expertise needs to be collected, analysed and used to direct change, and constantly adapt, review and modify procedures. This places frontline experience at the heart of change. And this type of change provides people with clear meaning and significance, it’s their skills and experience which are driving the direction.

These arguments do not call for the abandonment of procedures, they have enormous value. Nor do these arguments call for constant disruptive change in which nothing can get done effectively. Instead they call for natural human strengths to be supported and enhanced by placing frontline workers in contact with the consequences of their decisions, allowing them to develop expertise, and the authority to lead and improvise.

If expertise is collected and analysed in a way which doesn’t increase workload (beyond the minimal), then it can be used to modify, support and enhance procedures, systems and structures. And this leads to greater levels of safety, innovation and motivation. This way, the organisation is shaped and changed by experience, not abstract theory masquerading as rigorous micro management.



Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.

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