Oil Spill and Complexity…

Gail the actuary wrote a detail post (The Gulf Deepwater Oil Spill – Was Complexity a Factor?) where she explores the implications of complexity on the oil spill situation in the Gulf of Mexico.   She said:

When there are many employees and contractors with partial responsibility, it is all too easy for things to slip through the cracks.

Actually, one could argue that it may be more difficult for things to fall through the cracks when there is a third-party relationship involved.   The legal contract between the two companies should (and likely is) clearly specifying the scope of work and the respective responsibilities of the parties involved.   These terms of reference are the basis for the relationship, and they outline clearly what needs to be done, by whom, and who is responsible.  The contract between parties makes the system more reliable and reduces complexity by making outcomes more predictable, and reducing the level of integration in the system.

The difficulty comes when one party exerts pressure on the other, in violation of the agreement.  On one hand, (Wall Street Journal “BP Tries to Shift Blame to Transocean”, BP asserts that Transocean clearly had operational control over the rig. Yet, a rig worker, Mike Williams told “60 Minutes” that “The communication seemed to break down as to who was ultimately in charge,” and that BP ultimately imposed its point of view (to go faster) over the objections of Transocean.

This is likely when the situation got more complex. The system is composed of may parts. Complexity depends on two dimensions: how variable the output of each part is, and how integrated the system is (how much each part’s outcome influences the other parts.   When BP allegedly stepped over its bound by overriding and overtaking Transocean’s responsibilities, it introduced in the system additional complexity by twisting the system and coupling decision making that should have been decoupled.

So, Gail is right, complexity is a factor in this crisis.  The division of labor is a good thing. It reduces variability in each part of the system by clearly identifying expectations and outcomes, and the relationship between parties.   Complexity jumps when stress is applied to the system (pressures to go fast, failures, inconsistent test results = actuators) that resulted in violating the expectations embedded in the contracts.  This increased complexity likely contributed to breakdowns in decision making (confusion over who is in charge)  which probably contributed to the accident.

Looking forward to your comments.

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One Response to Oil Spill and Complexity…

  1. Pingback: The Oil Spill and the Edge of Chaos… « Complexity

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