Can you learn from lessons past? You bet your BP you can!

lesson

We want you to start here by watching the video below:

Now you may not have the same political views of the commentator, but you have to admit that the Ixtoc spill and its solutions sound strikingly familiar.

Aligned with this video is this story from today’s Boston Globe.

It’s a short story but here are some telling statistics from (this year’s) Gulf oil spill:

  • Oil spilled so far: 69 million to 131.5 million gallons
  • Oil recovered: 10 million gallons burned off, 25 million gallons collected
  • Tools used to collect oil in the 2010 Gulf spill:  booms, mechanical skimmers, and oil dispersants.
  • Tools used to collect oil in 1979 Ixtoc spill: oil booms, mechanical skimmers, and oil dispersants.
  • Tools used to collect oil in 1989 Valdez spill: oil booms, mechanical skimmers, and oil dispersants.


  • Investment in past three years in drilling by Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Chevron Corp., BP America:  $33.8 Billion
  • Investment in past three years in cleanup technologies: unknown, but a tiny fraction of the above

The point of the article, and of Rachel Maddow’s rant above is just really a project management principle:  use your lessons learned.  There have been several chances to do that, as you see above.  And you can’t blame the oil industry for trying to focus mainly on the profitable business of drilling.  But when you look at the costs they’ve incurred, you have to shake your head and ask why, with these many real-world lessons learned they wouldn’t have devoted more effort to learning from the other spills and investing in fixing them.  Yes, it’s expensive to drill a relief well with each well but it sure looks like that’s the way to go.

As project managers, we owe it to ourselves, our stakeholders, and sometimes the wider environment (pun intended) when we initiate a project.

Have we really looked back – thoughtfully – at previous similar projects, and what went horribly wrong or tremendously right with them?  Have we taken that learning and integrated it into our planning? If that integration requires speaking “truth to power”, have we the courage to do that?  We assert that having the facts and the history in hand increases your capability to have the courage to confront, convey, and convince. Those facts are there.  The video above is striking in the similarity to today’s Gulf problems.  I would have liked to have seen that video played during the recent Congressional panels on the oil spill, and would like to have seen Tony Hayward’s reaction.

Again, you don’t have to agree with the politics or even the particular scenario we’ve chosen to illustrate the point.  If you get the part we’ve bolded above, you get the “project management point of intersection” here.

5 Replies to “Can you learn from lessons past? You bet your BP you can!”

  1. Rant all you want, but executives are interested in only one thing: quick profits. They do not want to waste money or time on things that MIGHT happen, especially if those things incur costs instead of profit. Unrealistically, they assume that accidents will NOT happen. Gathering lessons learned, and making changes because of them, are evil cost centers as far as executives are concerned. They would rather demand that things go well every time, and under-paid / over-worked subordinates take the heat. BP executives “didn’t know” because they didn’t want to know. Mention potential problems and you’d better have a plan attached to it to turn them into profit, or else you’ll be stifled. Do it too many times and you’re out the door. Executives know that most problems will pass without sticking to them. At worst they may feel temporary embarrassment and may have to leave the company to take an equally high paying job elsewhere. How rude of us to interrupt their game!

  2. I can not stand Maddow, but can certainly agree with your point. I love how you took this disaster and illustrated so well the importance of lessons learned. They should not be simply documented and stored in the archives. In the ’79 instance, those lessons learned should have spurred an entirely new project to develop better technology/tools.

    Great post!

  3. I appreciate that you opened the post by stressing that it was an apolitical matter: so true. This is a matter of good management lessons being turned into best practice, and that is why I cannot recommend it highly enough.

    When you take a look at the often revocable public relations damage the need for a project like this automatically incurs, is it not best to apply the best practices available to you as a result of lessons learned from failures past and keep the backlash against your product minimised? Moreover, the project is already behind the 8-ball because the earlier lessons learned (i.e. relief wells) that would have led to better recovery capability were ignored. Cost then to install vs. cost now to repair makes it seem a no-brainer, which begs another question: was there a proper risk assessment done years ago? If so, why were the lessons not installed? If not, why not?

    A great post indeed.

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