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.