Friday, April 30, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Spill - Early thoughts on the response

Almost two weeks into what promises to be one of the largest spills in US history, questions are beginning to come up about the decision timeline around the response.  Given the response went through a standard command and control model any of the actions can be considered against the standard operating procedure and the assumptions that feed into that operating procedure.  Below are some early thoughts based on these two categories.  Please note these aren't based on inside knowledge and may prove incorrect once more details come out.

  • Search & Rescue needs to be separated from environmental response at the outset:  Usually, marine incidents feed up into one centralized command center.  Anyone in this command center is going to focus immediately on the possibility of saving lives as they should.  In parallel, though, a separate structure should immediately be set up to focus on the oil spill.  That way, both events get full focus.  This approach usually should happen; what will be telling is how quickly this separate structure was set up and in place.    
  • Faulty assumptions likely exacerbated the spill impact:  The first assumption was based on a perceived understanding of oil rig design that there should have been a safety that stopped the flow of oil.  This assumption likely meant that during the first flurry of conversations, experts thought there would be no danger of a large scale spill.  The second assumption was about the size of the leak which went from 5K to 10K barrels a day.  Given the dispersion of an oil spill is based on basic variables like amount of oil, wind direction and current, the models of how big the spill would get were likely wrong.  
These assumptions seem to have lead to a delay in recognizing the size of the problem and the subsequent deploying of other resources like commercial vessels and the US Navy.  Unfortunately, this also means that the spill is exponentially larger (by area) and harder to contain than if the severity had been recognized and responded to at the outset.

How will this play into the future?  The standard operating procedures should be modified to include checks into the assumptions that exacerbated this spill.  There will be debate about first response actions (e.g., what happens when the first notice of an oil spill is received).  Given we don't exist in a world of unlimited resources, every spill can't be treated like the "big one" before all the facts are known.  However, there will likely be considerable debate about what the first response should look like in the future and whether it needs to be bolstered.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

Icelandic Volcanoes: Networks, Risk Management & Innovation

Network resiliencyrisk management and innovation are frequent topics of discussion when it comes to the economic system meltdown.  Any system, however, can be looked at through the same high-level lenses.  This holds true for the air transportation system which has seen airlines, travelers and businesses impacted by a giant cloud of silica spewed out from an Icelandic volcano.  With the air transportation system shut down, there are lessons to be learned in how businesses/governments think about networks and then how that impacts the very real decisions made around risk management and innovation.  

(1) Networks are resilient only to the extent their underlying operating systems are stable.  One hears a lot about how networks are resilient, that specific nodes can be taken offline without impacting the functioning of the overall network.  However, when the operating principle of the network is disrupted, the network isn't resilient and ceases to function.  In this case, the operating principle (ability to route around what are usually short term, localized atmospheric conditions) of the air transportation network was disrupted effectively shutting it down. This demonstrates that focus needs to not only be on protecting network nodes, but also the basic underlying operating systems.  This has often received less focus than protecting individual nodes  when ensuring the continuity of networks we depend on ... international shipping system, electrical grid, etc.  It gets to the heart of risk management.  

(2) Risk Management.  Formalized risk management systems are all the rage in a lot of companies, yet in many cases they become sterile exercises where everything is included and nothing is effectively mitigated.  How many airline companies had: "Large scale atmospheric disturbances, resulting from volcanic ash" in their risk management systems?  Likely very few.  

(3) Innovation to manage risk or make money off of it.  Some reports say that there were past volcanic eruptions in Iceland that today could cause an ash cloud that persists for months.  Somewhere, there is a company or inventor thinking about a jet engine filter to allow planes to fly safely through volcanic silica.  Perhaps, this was even proposed in the past, but was never acted on because a volcano was considered a "black swan" or the cost was too high.  In any case, what may not have been a priority in the past, likely will be today as the airlines lose market cap and businesses of every type suffer losses ranging from productivity to product spoilage.