David Brooks: Drilling for Certainty…Jun 3rd, 2010 | By steven_spear | Category: Featured Article, Organizational Learning
David Brooks’s “Drilling for Certainty” correctly captures the challenge and a failure mode of managing complex systems, but the article misses the prescriptive element for achieving great success.
He gets the challenge of unknowability right—that incorporating ever more sciences and technologies, connected in increasingly convoluted, interdependent ways, makes it impossible to know how a system will behave under all circumstances. This is a common challenge across the spectrum of high tech and heavy industry, manufacturing and services like healthcare, in the private sector and the public.
He also captures a key failure mode, the numbness to vulnerability that arises when little things go wrong, seemingly inconsequentially. NASA’s complacency about foam failures prior to Columbia and the ‘normalization’ of indicator lights at Three Mile Island are both examples.
However, he misses the ‘how to’ of creating complex systems capable of great—near perfect and even perfect—reliability and responsiveness.
This is not hypothetical or wishful but is evident in practice—the achievement of near perfect workplace safety at Alcoa, DuPont, and elsewhere, and the impeccable safety record of the US Navy’s Nuclear Reactor program since the USS Nautilus was launched in 1954.
The key is not better risk management—implying that the risk levels are immutable, and have to be hedged.
Rather, risks can be decreased to near zero—in frequency and severity—in organizations capable of hyper-accelerated learning. This is all dependent on the reality that whatever we design, we get wrong on the first try, but with sufficient discipline and energy, we can learn our way to perfection.
This learning depends on
(1) constant rigor to see little (seemingly inconsequential) problems not as normal but indications of ignorance,
(2) relentless rigor to understand why little, localized problems occurred thereby converting latent ignorance into useful knowledge, and
(3) discipline in incorporating new discoveries locally and systemically to make the system ever more reliable and responsive, and ever less risky.
Underpinning this broad-based, non-stop, high velocity learning is leadership engaged in and committed to seeing and solving problems and sharing what is learned.