Preventing Big Disasters

Flint water, Boeing Max, Fukushima nuclear reactor, new German frigate “not fit for sea”, California PG&E fires, and other disasters with big impacts but less press attention. For many of these, a word or two is enough to evoke public anger. What many have in common is What Went Wrong could have been identified and rectified long before disaster struck.

 

 

Pie in the sky, impractical thinking? Not if companies and governmental agencies required a What Could Go Wrong review that examines every project affecting public health and safety with a critical eye, drawing on the expertise of independent experts whose only mission is to identify vulnerabilities; not quashing projects or innovation, making sure big risks are identified. A What Could Go Wrong (WCGW) review wouldn’t eliminate risks that might produce disasters, just identify them as clearly as possible, the sooner the better.

 

Studying these big disasters, what surprised me is they didn’t occur because technical mistakes were made, or work was shoddy, or contractors were incompetent, and none of these were in the category of virtually unpredictable “asteroid strikes”, but because projects or programs went forward based on fundamental assumptions that turned out to be flawed or didn’t adequately consider risks.

 

Why? The prevailing culture rewards short-term results, conventional thinking, political considerations (corporate and public), and is too dependent on legal cautions rather than establishing a disciplined process to ferret out faulty assumptions and blinders that underlie projects or programs. Once these projects/programs start moving down the track there’s no stopping them, they keep shoveling more coal into the boiler until the train (project) gets to its disastrous destination.

 

Don’t companies and governmental agencies have quality programs and checklists to make sure things are done as they ought to be? Quality programs identify what should bedonewhereas a What Could Go Wrong review asks what are we missing. This means people with deep knowledge of the subject matter, people with big picture perspectives, are brought in for no-holds-barred risk identification, even risk imagination. I know Michiganders who could have prevented the Flint water disaster and all the misery that ensued in a one hour What Could Go Wrong meeting.

 

Lastly, the awful child death on a white sand beach at a deluxe Florida resort, “trap and release” the checklist measure to control alligator ingress. What Could Go Wrong? Absent an unbreachable (i.e., environmentally “unfriendly”) alligator barrier to prevent these predators from getting into resort waterways the possibility that alligators would migrate into these food-rich waters and beaches and that some would avoid capture was likely, if not inevitable. An expert herpetologist (reptile scientist) prompted to imaginewhat are we missing, and with no incentive to tell the company what it wanted to hear could have identified this dire risk in short order.

 

A WCGW review, properly planned and facilitated, can be done quickly and inexpensively. Disasters can’t be eliminated but many can be prevented or mitigated by having the right people ask What Could Go Wrong.

God and Science, Science and God

 

Even a person of deep faith can sometimes be intimidated by the astounding proclamations that come from the scientific community, to the extent that we may be inclined to tune them out, or reject them out of hand.

 

Science has become so specialized it’s difficult for laymen, even those with technical training, to wrap their minds around modern scientific concepts—a universe packed with dark matter and dark energy we can’t “see”, evolutionary adaptation, extra dimensions suggested by string theory, mind boggling time scales when talking about the history of the universe or the number of galaxies and stars.

 

Christians believe all reality and truth originates in God, so how can we fear anything that proceeds from honest science grounded in evidence? Rather than being intimidated by huge numbers—billions of galaxies, a 14 billion year old universe, quarks so small you’d need to line up trillions of them to make a grain of sand—we might marvel that God is the Creator of a universe far more impressive and dynamic than a single world around which a handful of celestial bodies move in perfect rhythm. As one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia characters says of Aslan, “He’s wild, you know. Not a tame lion.”

 

We can respect scientists, like athletes, who play by the rules, limiting themselves to observation, measurement, and evidence. Scientists “playing by the rules” cannot endorse invisible realms because such realms cannot be measured, because they aren’t testable. However, science has a rich history of discovering previously undetectable realms—microorganisms, atoms and even smaller particles, ultraviolet light. Not to imply that every invisible realm is discoverable by science if only we could invent the right tools. Rather, an image of how things can be real and affective without being measurable, as the vertical (“up”) dimension would be undetectable/invisible to flat plane creatures.

 

With much of science obscure to those not steeped in advanced mathematics, physics, biology, chemistry, it’s even more important to distinguish between evidence-based conclusions, and speculation. Some scientists, prominent voices among them, are not as careful as they ought to be at distinguishing what evidence supports from speculative conclusions. Today’s scientific consensus: about 14 billion years ago an unimaginably huge amount of “stuff”, in which matter and energy were indistinguishable, at an unimaginably high temperature, compacted into an unimaginably small space—if time and space even existed—“exploded” to initiate the universe (the Big Bang). From whence did this “Micro-speck of Everything” originate, what caused it to “explode” and expand? Science has evidence for what happened immediately after the “explosion” but can only speculate about the nature and source of this “Micro-speck of Everything”. Speculation isn’t a bad thing so long as the difference between evidence and speculation is made clear. We have to be especially careful about an ideological scientism that goes beyond science to construct a God-less belief system about the universe, man, ethics, and morality. Unharnessed from biblical principles, man is free to make his own rules, but history demonstrates that when man makes the rules, “unencumbered” by the Gospel, bad things happen, and with more powerful technologies, even worse things happen (tens, if not hundreds, of millions tortured and murdered in the 20thcentury).

 

Science has evidence for evolutionary adaptation, for living things evolving new qualities and capabilities, testable evidence when it comes to rapidly reproducing organisms like viruses—how they evolve resistance to antibiotics. Many scientists embrace a theory of “chemical evolution” that preceded, and then produced life on Earth, a theory that largely relies on statistics: given enough organic “soup”, enough time (3.5 billion years), energy rich environments, living organisms that could reproduce were produced from the chemical soup, similar to using statistics to “prove” life elsewhere in the universe based on the age of the universe and number of planets.

 

Lest we think a billion years is ample time for anything imaginable to occur, even the earliest of these theoretical transitions: chemical soup to the most primitive cells containing DNA, to photosynthetic cells, to more complex cells that could survive in the oxygen-rich environment produced by photosynthesis, would have required astounding increases in levels of complexity, and these only involving the simplest forms of life.

 

Christians consider life a gift from God, even if God used millions or billions of years to accomplish it. Do now well-understood “mechanical” processes preclude the need for a benevolent God, or worse, mitigate against such a God? We don’t need modern science to inform us that bad, unexplainable things happen to good people, as this was known in Moses’s time and by early Christians—human clocks rapidly ticking down, grief pursuing us, even the longest lived. A better question for believers is how do such events and developments play out in realms that are invisible to science and mankind? Is there a deeper meaning, as Christians embrace a deeper meaning for the apparent absurdity of the Cross? Some are willing to concede the possibility of a Creative Agent, a kind of Divine Watchmaker or Mathematician. As to a benevolent God, the Father icon Jesus reveals, only Divine Revelation or a personal experience of the invisible realm where God resides (Paul on the road to Damascus) can reveal such a Deity. The human paradox is we cannot discern this benevolent God with our senses and intellect alone, or with any macro or microscope.

 

The size and age of the universe, number of galaxies, may make us feel insignificant—cramped and small, but we can view these numbers from a different perspective. 1) You and I are infinitely larger than the “Micro-speck” that contained the universe before the Big Bang; 2) Science has yet to discover life beyond Planet Earth, much less self-aware, self-reflective life; 3) As Christians, we believe God Himself occupied the brief moment of time that’s allotted to human beings; 4) Science itself recognizes that human beings represent the highest level of complexity discovered thus far in the universe, more complex in terms of elements, chemical processes, and energy flows than the largest stars and planets. Viewed this way, numbers tell a different story, and whether our ancestors’ smaller numbers or today’s very large numbers, theologians suggest the Creator is outside of time and space, and unrestricted by these created dimensions.

 

What is the responsibility of believers, especially theologians, philosophers, and pastors? Theological and philosophical principles and perspectives may go beyond measurable evidence, but ought not to contradict reason and evidence, not at war with honest science.

 

Scientists and believers alike are creatures that seek resolution of questions and mysteries. This desire seems hard-wired into us. The more we learn about Planet Earth, our solar system, the universe, the more questions and mysteries we encounter. An honest scientist and an honest believer have much in common, each questing for deeper knowledge and meaning. This world and universe may be much different (less tame) than our ancestors could have imagined, but wonder at its majesty and beauty hasn’t diminished. To the extent that science keeps in its lane—the relentless pursuit of evidence, and conclusions that fit the evidence—it is an occupation believers ought to heartily embrace.

Project Management: From Red Lights to Green Lights

How many books have been published and classes taught on project management? Yet, we have too many projects that are “Red”, “Pink”, or “Yellow” rather than the “Green Light” projects and products we celebrate.

 

  • A city in Michigan switches from one water supply to another and experiences elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. If crimes were committed, they weren’t the root cause of the mess, and an exclusive focus on legal remedies won’t prevent messes like this from occurring again.
  • On a high profile facility project where the designers/constructors were capable organizations with good reputations, the cost escalates to where the project has to be suspended and a political tsunami occurs.
  • Many projects, like the California rail project, using early-stage estimates to set budgets, with many unknowns and important decisions still to be made, end up costing 50% more than originally estimated, or 2-3 times as much.

 

Reading and listening to the news, these aren’t rare occurrences. Must we accept such outcomes now and then—bad luck, bad karma, once in a lifetime “asteroid strikes”?

 

Some would like to reduce project management to a mechanical exercise, good software, the right reports, but good PM is also an art, especially in relation to communications, and it requires virtue: prudence, humility, and perseverance. Focusing exclusively on reports and software may make you a better PM, but not a great one. My experience managing many projects, conducting hundreds of pre, mid, and post-project face to face customer interviews, conducting hundreds of project audits with project managers, and hearing plenty from project team members who have experienced too many troubled projects, suggests measures that can significantly reduce the number of “Red Light” projects.

 

ISO certification and Ford Q1 taught us that some ISO procedures produce little if any practical benefit, many produce some benefit some of the time, and a few are high impact. These highest impact processes are where we applied most of our energy, where I focused on my own projects, and when training, coaching, and auditing project managers. Yes, these high impact processes take effort, but organizations find the time to clean up “Red Light” projects, so why not invest a fraction of the time to prevent these messes? I’m convinced a one-day What Could Go Wrong session with the right water expert could have prevented the Flint heartbreak and subsequent remediation/legal costs.

 

Excellent project management is a differentiator, just as a great quarterback is a differentiator. I’ve conducted project completion interviews with satisfied customers on projects I knew had experienced problems. Conversely, I’ve interviewed customers who were less than satisfied than I’d expected on projects with very few technical/delivery problems—project management was the difference.

 

What is necessary to get to “Green Light” projects and products (consistently superior outcomes) rather than “Yellow Light” (superior outcomes mixed with mediocre outcomes), “Pink Light” (consistently mediocre outcomes), and “Red Light” (too many bad outcomes)?

 

  • Work Definition that is as clear to all parties as possible, including identifying Work Not Included. This means thinking expansively about the project/product, asking What Could Go Wrong, what aren’t we considering. In our rush to get the work underway, we often shortchange the probing questions that can make a big difference. Without clear definition, the project manager is vulnerable to all kinds of project twists and turns and the customer won’t know, or will misunderstand, what to expect.
  • A documented face to face pre-project Customer Interview to confirm expectations, as well as outcomes the customer cannot accept, to resolve discrepancies between expectations and the contracted work before the project proceeds, with mid-project interviews on longer duration projects to identify essential adjustments, and a project completion interview to measure performance and identify systemic issues. I have done hundreds of these interviews and every one has produced something we hadn’t expected or considered.
  • A concise Project Work Plan (Roadmap) that includes more than just the contracted work definition, addressing risk (What Could Go Wrong—see Michigan lead mess), measures to eliminate or mitigate risks, project communications, team budgets that may be different than anticipated in the proposal, when quality reviews will occur and by whom. 2-4 pages rather than a thesis. For early-stage cost estimates, risk can be mitigated by providing a cost range with a best estimate within this range rather than one number packed with assumptions and contingencies. This approach frames the degree of risk and allows the customer to participate in establishing risk tolerance. An organic Roadmap that changes when the project changes so the project manager and team have a common understanding of responsibilities and accountability. In this era of emails and texting, with big generational differences in job/life priorities, project managers must take time for face-to-face conversations when important commitments are being sought. Clarity with delivery dates and times, product content, level of effort, obstacles to the commitment, with repetition as necessary.
  • Status Reports to the customer that address work performed, including requested or perceived changes in the work that may affect budget, schedule, and risk (the high profile facility project that progressed so far without official change/cost authorization). This requires the project manager to be knowledgeable about the true status of the project, probing risk as the project/product development proceeds, and puts the customer on notice if they have essential responsibilities to fulfill or decisions to make.
  • A means to regularly assess Work Actually Completed in relation to the hours/dollars spent. More than a few project managers have asked how their project could be 90% complete a month earlier, with 50% of the budget being spent since that time. The answer? The PM’s estimate of work actually completed was flawed, or the project team didn’t want to bear bad news, or the PM/team succumbed to the inclination to be overly optimistic about completion, or a combination of the above. Best if the project manager comes at this estimate from more than one angle—task by task completion, deliverables completed, drawing status, QC feedback. Strive for your best estimate of percent complete, then reduce this percentage by 10-30%. If you estimate 70% complete, actual completion is probably closer to 40-60%. What harsh experience has taught me.

 

An article could be written about each of these high impact processes identifying things that can make them more effective (useful) but the most important thing is to do them with prudence, humility, and perseverance. All can be adapted to PM programs and customer requirements already in place. These high impact processes presuppose a competent project team. Good project management can’t make up for incompetent planners, designers, QC, or builders.

 

My “Red Light” hell: poorly defined work, no pre or post project customer interviews, no project work plan, no project status reports, pro forma/superficial quality reviews, a belief that what’s spent equals work actually completed.

 

Meeting project budgets is essential, but the best project managers know project/product success is more than dollars and cents. Satisfied customers, companies that meet their profit goals to stay healthy, project teams that take satisfaction in their work, communities and companies and environments enhanced. More than just mess avoidance; the bigger picture, the things we remember when the dust has settled. Getting from “Red Lights” to “Green Lights” makes life better.

Free Markets, Human Liberty and The Environment

Edmund Burke, an eighteenth century promoter of responsible human liberty, opposed the French version of Liberté and consequently suffered many insults and rebukes. In England, the French version of liberty was also popular and to many Burke was more reactionary than libertarian. Likewise, George Washington sought to prevent French Liberté from invading America, and was chastised by many “democrats”. Burke and Washington opposed the ideology of the French Revolution because they understood it would merely replace one form of tyranny with another, one ruling oligarchy with another.

 

We are well into the twenty-first century and if there is a predominant ideology in the West it is an environmental socialism that is skeptical of free markets, skeptical of local decision-making, skeptical of human liberties and enterprise that conflict with the “rights” of snails, mad as hell about human assaults on the environment, a twenty-first century Liberté where opposing perspectives are ridiculed and put down rather than investigated with reason and evidence.

 

Much good has been accomplished and promoted by people with strong ecological sensibilities, but the greatest good has been achieved when evidence, reason, and civil debate were the guideposts, not ideological dogma: early 20thcentury water filtration and disinfection to prevent drinking water-borne diseases; mid and later 20thcentury programs to advance wastewater treatment and management of the residuals they produce; utility, industry, and home technologies to get soot and smog out of urban areas. Programs that made a big difference in people’s lives, not virtue-signaling “crises” with marginal impacts that cost a fortune and eliminate jobs.

 

Evidence and reason reveal that representative democracies that value human liberty, personal responsibility, and freer markets, societies that still esteem time-tested virtues, are far better environmental stewards than top down oligarchies like Russia and China, and better environmental stewards than oligarchies posing as democracies (in the Industrial Age and today). We know that none of the world’s representative democracies are perfect—not even close, but those with legislative, judicial, and societal brakes on oligarchs, bureaucracies that answer to no one, and criminal opportunists best serve their citizens andthe environment. Look it up.

 

Why are so many well-educated people skeptical of free markets, individual liberty informed by personal responsibility, the classical virtues? Because for all the information at our fingertips the ability to distinguish between evidence and speculation, or ideology, has atrophied; because mainstream and social media reward those who hold “enlightened” views while punishing those who challenge the “virtuous” consensus; because, for many, environmental talking points and funding streams are more important than evidence.  Reasoning itself is suspect as a weapon of imperialistic, racist, or sexist societies, despite paragons of reasoning abiding in every culture. So many problems—global, local, economic, health related—are blamed on climate change because the claims are never challenged, because we are unable to distinguish between carefully reasoned and superficial arguments. Sadly, much more practical good could be accomplished on the climate front if we separated speculation from evidence-based conclusions.

 

In the 1960s, flower children inscribed “Frodo lives” on subway and building walls, and while they were muddled in many things they were on to something, esteeming the democratic society, individual liberties, free trade, personal virtue, and care for the natural world that predominated in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Shire. Of all the fads of the 60s that have faded, too bad it was the one closest to the truth.

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters?

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters? Lead and copper, toxic algae, polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), cryptosporidium, the next grim chemical to be discovered in our water: how concerned (afraid) should we be? The consensus seems to be very afraid.

 

Today’s technology allows us to detect chemicals at increasingly lower amounts. In the 1960s, we identified pollutants in parts per million—that’s one tiny grain of sand in a 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot high sandhill. Today, we identify many chemicals in parts per billion—one grain in a 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot high sandhill, or in parts per trillion—one grain in a 100 foot by 100 foot by 100 foot high sandhill. Some chemicals can even by detected in parts per quadrillion. This means we can now “see” chemicals in our water that were once “invisible”.

 

Just because we can “see” a chemical—one grain in a billion or trillion—doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, that we should be afraid. Though zero is a useful number in mathematics, in the physical/natural world, zero is unattainable. So what questions should we ask if something is detected (“seen”)? Is it a chemical of concern, or grave concern? Is there more than the regulated amount? Is there more than the amount that can cause problems with repeated exposure—not just a sip here or there? Does the amount pose an imminent danger (a chemical spill)? Unless the “seen” chemical is subjected to these questions, we could be afraid for no rational, evidence-based reason. Without asking such questions, everything becomes a crisis, and when everything is a crisis, it’s hard to focus on what’s important.

 

Home and workplace water treatment technologies have advanced rapidly, so a problem at the water source needn’t mean a problem at the tap, even if the water treatment plant isn’t equipped to handle it. As for the big picture, human health and wildlife protection, Michigan’s waters are cleaner than they’ve been in over 100 years. Just because we can “see” more chemicals in our water doesn’t mean water quality is deteriorating, or we’re in danger. With rare exceptions, exposure to Michigan’s waters poses far less risk than driving a car, smoking tobacco or pot, bicycling, extreme sports, tattoos, prescription medications, or being sexually active.

 

Shall we rely on consensus, or the evidence? It’s good to be concerned about Michigan’s water quality, but we need not be afraid.