Another Failure Of Culture

A recent Coast Guard report found that Transocean Ltd.’s poor safety culture contributed to the deadly Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion that led to 11 deaths and a massive oil spill. Once again, culture emerges as an important factor in the success…or failure…of an organization.

“The investigation revealed that Deepwater Horizon and its owner, Transocean, had serious safety management system failures and a poor safety culture,” the Coast Guard concluded in a 288-page report.

“The company leaders’ failure to commit to compliance with the International Safety Management Code created a safety culture throughout its fleet that could be described as: ‘running it until it breaks,’ ‘only if it’s convenient,’ and ‘going through the motions.’”

According to the Coast Guard’s findings, Transocean was more interested in production speed than in safety. Poor maintenance, inadequate training and the bypassing of alarms and automatic shutdown systems prevented the crew from shutting down the runaway well after it blew and led to a chaotic abandonment of the blazing Deepwater Horizon rig. It appears that drilling time was the primary value, and anything that got in the way was either ignored or given lip-service.

When I audit an organization’s culture, it doesn’t take long to discover the true values and behaviors that drive the organization and individuals. Once I see what’s really important, it’s easy to make connections to both the successes and the failures. Generally, anything that can be discovered in a post-mortem would also be evident before the fact.

In all the Cultural Audits I have conducted, I have never found an organization that willfully and consciously endorsed unsafe conditions and actions. This may be because I am usually retained by organizations that are concerned about safety and want to improve. If a company was really bad about safety, they’d never pay me to tell them so.

Typically, the challenges with safety culture are more a function of competing values. Production/profit compete with Safety, Quality and other values. Unless priorities are clear, consistent and led, it is left to the individual employee to decide which value has trump.

Companies that have a true culture of safety has several things in common:

  • Leaders who are uncompromising in their commitment to safety.
  • Systems that make it easy for individuals to work safely.
  • A consistent decision-making process that considers safety in all decisions.
  • A strong cadre of employees who are committed to the safety of themselves and others.

It often takes a tragedy to focus leaders on the necessity of a true safety culture. Perhaps the Deepwater Horizon will serve that purpose for all organizations.

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