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Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Greatest Flaw

The seemingly endless catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico is an excellent example of really terrible project management. From every angle, this is a colossal botch by some of the smartest and most powerful people in the world. That starts with British Petroleum (BP), which reportedly used at every turn the most primitive form of risk management – squeeze your eyes tight shut and cross your fingers.

As it drove its drill through four miles of seabed, starting under a mile of water, the huge, worldwide oil company used up-to-the-minute techniques and technology. Yet, for the prevention and mitigation of possible problems, it stuck with decades-old practices developed for shallow water, consistently choosing the least-costly protective measures. In essence, BP appears to have acted on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong, and the federal regulators seemed to agree.

From reports about what went on before and during the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, it begins to appear that a disaster was inevitable.

In the ensuing weeks, we’ve been treated to a series of incredibly ineffective efforts to stop the underwater gusher. Shortly thereafter, we began to witness the resultant chaos in trying to contain and clean up the millions of gallons of crude oil. The fishing and tourism industries, vital to the populations that rim the Gulf, are for now as dead as the beslimed sea creatures plucked from the gunk.

Regarding the cleanup, The New York Times reported last week: “From the beginning, the effort has been bedeviled by a lack of preparation, organization, urgency and clear lines of authority among federal, state and local officials and BP.”

That description is a near-complete listing of the classic ailments of failed projects, including the most damaging flaw of all.

David Brooks, estimable columnist for The Times, concludes a commentary on the situation with this prescription: “We have vested too much authority in national officials who are really smart, but who are really distant. We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground.”

Wrong.

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