Workshop decisions

I’m part way through reading Disastrous Decisions, Andrew Hopkins’ recent book on the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  One chapter looks at why the people responsible for deciding that the well had been properly cemented did so in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary.  There are multiple reasons but prominent among them are consensus decision making and groupthink, which occurred with the best of intentions but lead to decisions that were incorrect and ultimately tragic.  I read this with increasing discomfort because group decision making is seen as central to a safety management study workshop.

Hopkins does not seem to be suggesting complete abandonment of participatory decision making but mentions other approaches that retain the advantages of participation while avoiding the worst features of groupthink:

  • Decisions are made by a single responsible person after consulting with all relevant experts, OR
  • Decisions are made by a group but the group includes an outside expert who is independent of the in-house team, OR
  • Decisions are made by a group but one member of the group is appointed devil’s advocate to openly challenge the group’s thinking

In principle a pipeline safety management study has to be approved by the pipeline licensee so some might argue that the first alternative above is already in place.  In practice however this is most unlikely to be effective unless the licensee’s responsible officer participates in the workshop; that hasn’t happened yet in the several dozen workshops I have been in.

For the second option, I guess that I often fill the role of independent outside expert myself when I run a workshop for a client, except that if I lead the discussion (which is very often the case) I could conceivably be part of the groupthink problem rather than a solution.  I try hard to avoid railroading a workshop but there is a fine line between trying to provide guidance and inadvertently providing firm direction.

For that reason I quite like the devil’s advocate concept.  I will be thinking about how it might be incorporated in future SMS workshops.

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4 Responses to Workshop decisions

  1. Chris Hughes says:

    When I act as an independent facilitator I try to be a combination of outside expert and devil’s advocate: sometimes I will state definitively from my experience that a particular design will or will not be effective, sometimes I just put forward extreme scenarios to ensure the workshop makes its decision based on as full an assessment as possible. This seems to work well.

  2. Darryl McMillan says:

    Peter, I agree with the devil’s advocate concept. The SMS’s we have undertaken generally involve an independant facilitator/expert along with various other members with experience in a range of disciplines in the pipeline industry. While we do not consciously decide that someone becomes a “devil’s advocate” it is made clear to the people involved that they should feel free to express their opinions. We’ve found that this is a good approach to ensure that all possible scenarios and issues are laid out on the table and considered. The key to achieving this I feel is a facilitator who is clear in explaining what the objectives are and ensuring people are comfortable to voice their opinions.

  3. Phil Venton says:

    Useful information, thanks.
    I believe that the best way of at least minimising group think is that the SMS preparation is done the way it was intended in 1997 – by the responsible designer analyses the threats and determines the controls, then documents the design and in parallel the threat/control/ and its effectiveness.
    It is very difficult for the facilitator to facilitate critical examination of the threats/controls/effectiveness evaluation when he does most of the preparatory work, and documents the workshop findings in his database.

    It is also important to recall that the Safety section and Risk Assessment Process (AS 2885.1 1997) was developed for the pipeline. Since that time the SMS has to some extent lost focus, being used for lots of things other than new pipelines (which often don’t require much effort by the designer prior to the Workshop). I consider there is a case for calling these tasks “Risk Assessments” – even if they use the SMS process, simply to raise the profile and force the SMS process.

    As discussed in the workshop – I regularly find myself being called on to “do an SMS” meaning the preparatory work, the database documentation and then to lead the control effectiveness / risk evaluation – simply because the Client will not do the work. While I don’t believe that the integrity of these have been compromised, I am always uncomfortable in this position because if something did go wrong, my independence would be challenged, and I would find that difficult to disprove.

    The industry would benefit from:
    1) An “approved” SMS Database (database and a simplified Excel spreadsheet) that can be used by organisations that have not put their energies to developing one.
    2) A similar document developed for preliminary SMS undertaken for the development of a new pipeline.
    3) Clarification of whether an SMS (per Section 2 of AS 2885.1) is the correct analysis methodology for things that are not to do with the pipeline, but which are more related to engineering modifications, stations and the like. We call them SMS’s, but perhaps these should be called Risk Assessments, and use the Company’s standard or AS 31000 as the methodology (ie keep the SMS process “pure” for the pipeline.
    4) A re-eductation of the industry and the facilitators so that they appreciate the obligations on the designer and the facilitator under AS 2885.1.

    Other Comments:
    1) The Tasmania Gas Pipeline worked well where we engaged a person from the safety/risk industry and an oil and gas background (but not a QRA expert) as the independent faciliator. Duke and its engineers did all the SMS preparation, documentation etc and the workshop contained a broad mix of stakeholders. The Facilator’s report used documentation from the Duke database, and reported the findings.
    2) I have for some months been assisting two engineering companies developing the data to be used for an SMS workshop, one for an existing pipeline and one for a new design – I have provided each with my database with some customisations, and have helped / guided their analysis, and lead a couple of trial workshops. This may not have been the most cost effective process for the ultimate client, but it is helping their learning, and as importantly, forcing them to discover / develop the required documentation (because they are responsible – not me).

    I commend this approach to SMS Facilitators to help achieve the independence objective, and so forcing the responsible people to justify the effiectiveness of the controls / their assessment of the risks to the Workshop, thereby stimulating thought and discussion.

    • petertuft says:


      So much to respond to! I’ll be selective and make comment on only your last point about helping engineers do the SMS themselves rather than the faciliator taking over and “doing” the SMS (like you I am often in that latter position). I like your suggested approach and have been thinking along similar lines lately although the opportunity to implement it has not arisen yet.

      I think many of your other points will be fertile ground for discussion within the committee the next time the standard is revised. (And for other readers, I mean the next full revision, not the forthcoming minor revision/amendment that is due “soon”.)

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