Your mind is only as free as you make it. Beware unchallenged assumptions. They are a prison for your mind that you build yourself!
Anticipate and Manage Product Problems Before They Happen
A recent New York Times article on the Fukushima disaster contains a remarkable statement that tragically illustrates the problem of doing product and project planning based only on events that have happened already:
“We can only work on precedent, and there was no precedent,” said Tsuneo Futami, a former Tokyo Electric nuclear engineer who was the director of Fukushima Daiichi in the late 1990s. “When I headed the plant, the thought of a tsunami never crossed my mind.”
“We can only work on precedent?” Nonsense! How about using your imagination to envision things that haven’t yet happened? That’s what imagination is for!
What kind of precedent were the executives at Tepco waiting for? And how could the possibility of a tsunami not cross their mind? As the article notes, in 1993, an earthquake generated a 30-foot tsunami that wiped out a coastal village completely. I was living in Japan at the time, and like everyone else, I watched the footage of the devastated town on TV. Wasn’t that precedent enough? Or were Fukushima executives and regulators incapable of imagining that the same thing, or something even worse, might happen in a different location such as Fukushima? After all, they were warned two years ago that a massive tsunami had hit the very location of the Fukushima reactor in 869 A.D. Or did they need the precedent of a tsunami hitting a nuclear reactor before they would think of evaluating the effect that such an event might have on the particular nuclear reactor they were responsible for? Apparently so. Now all of Japan is suffering the consequences for Tepco’s failure of imagination in threat analysis.
Don’t Just Study Past Product Problems. Imagine Possible New Product Problems!
Narrowness of thinking can endanger any product or project. You don’t have to wait for a problem to occur before you take steps to creatively envision possible problems and prevent them or mitigate the damage they might cause. But if you believe that “we can only work on precedent,” you will fail to imagine possible threats with an open mind and proactively work to address them. A person who believes that “we can only work on precedent” will fail to shut their barn door if they’ve never had a horse run away. They’ll fail to secure their servers if they’ve never been hacked. They’ll fail to monitor a project’s progress if they’ve never fallen behind schedule. If you live life by looking only in the rear-view mirror and dealing with cars that have already passed you by, you’re guaranteed to have a painful and potentially fatal crash with a previously-unseen car that lies somewhere ahead of you.
Periodically Review and Question Your Assumptions
Psychological research has shown that once humans have reached an initial working hypothesis or conclusion, they tend to assign higher weight to evidence that supports their existing conclusion and lower weight to evidence that contradicts it. This well-documented behavior is both irrational and dangerous. Evidence should be weighted according to its objective credibility and relevance, not by how well it matches our current beliefs. Tepco displayed this behavior in abundance. As Greg S. Hardy, a structural engineer, notes in the article:
“Once they made the proclamation that this was the maximum earthquake, they had a hard time re-evaluating that as new data came in.”
When You Change Assumptions, Think Through All the Possible Effects
The same excellent article illustrates another failure by Tepco to be even minimally forward-thinking:
After an advisory group issued nonbinding recommendations in 2002, Tokyo Electric Power Company, the plant owner and Japan’s biggest utility, raised its maximum projected tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi to between 17.7 and 18.7 feet — considerably higher than the 13-foot-high bluff [that the reactor was built on]. Yet the company appeared to respond only by raising the level of an electric pump near the coast by 8 inches, presumably to protect it from high water, regulators said.
Great! They updated their assumptions to increase the height of the maximum projected tsunami. But did they use computer software to simulate the result that such a tsunami would have? Did they even draw a whiteboard diagram of the nuclear reactor with the sea level raised by 18.7 feet and discuss how the reactor would respond? Apparently not. Now Japan is desperately struggling to manage the consequences of Tepco’s poor product planning and risk management.
Do Probabilistic Risk Analysis, Not Deterministic Risk Analysis
How did Tepco decide that the “maximum projected tsunami” at Fukushima could have a height of no more than 18.7 feet? Is there some law of physics that says that at Fukushima, it is physically impossible for a tsunami higher than 18.7 feet to occur? Of course not. Tepco’s fundamental mistake was to project a “maximum projected tsunami,” evaluate only the effects of that tsunami and smaller ones, and stop thinking there. They apparently didn’t consider the possibility that there might be an 18.8-foot tsunami. Or an 18.9-foot tsunami. Or a 30-foot tsunami like the one that hit Japan in 1993. Or a 70-foot tsunami like the one that hit Indonesia in 2004. Or the 46-foot tsunami that ultimately struck Fukushima this year. When 30- and 70-foot tsunamis have hit other locations during the last 20 years, it doesn’t take brilliant insight to realize that a tsunami of that size might hit the coast-side nuclear reactor you’re responsible for managing.
As the New York Times article notes, Tepco should have done probabilistic risk analysis. They should have looked at a curve of possibilities with a high-probability 1-foot tsunami at the left end of the axis and a low-probability 70- or 100-foot tsunami at the other end of the axis. Then, they should have modeled the behavior of the reactor at multiple points along that axis, looked at where unacceptable outcomes (like the current situation) began to occur, calculated the total probability that an unacceptable outcome might occur by adding the probabilities there and at each point beyond on the axis, and then looked at what steps they could take to reduce the probability of an unacceptable outcome. (Like having at least one backup generator located somewhere up a hill, for example!)
Recognize That Your Ability to Predict the Future Is Imperfect!
Even if Tepco executives had never thought of the possibility that their projections of the future might be wrong, Mother Nature helpfully proved that fact to them four years ago. The same article notes that in 2007, an earthquake hit their Kashiwazaki nuclear reactor that was 2.5 times larger than the largest earthquake the reactor’s design guidelines had envisioned. When that happened, someone at Tepco should have said “Hey, if we were wrong about the maximum possible earthquake size at Kashiwazaki, could we be wrong about the maximum possible tsunami size at Fukushima?” Humility, an awareness and acknowledgement of one’s own past errors, and an attempt to learn from them and improve are critical for long-term, repeatable success in product and project management.
Account for the Unknown
In yet another disastrous oversight, Tepco modeled the largest earthquake that known faults in the area could produce, yet they apparently didn’t consider the possibility that a currently-unknown fault could produce a larger earthquake, and therefore a larger tsunami! It’s a well-known fact, even among laypeople who have simply read a newspaper in the last 20 years, that we don’t have a complete list of every fault on the planet. Human knowledge in nearly all domains is known to be incomplete and imperfect. In particular, previously-unknown faults are discovered all the time when they first generate an earthquake! Therefore, anyone doing seismic planning has to consider the possibility that their installation may be affected by an earthquake on a fault whose existence is yet unknown.
For example, Tepco executives have almost certainly heard of the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake that struck Northern California in 1989 and got worldwide publicity. The Loma Prieta earthquake was caused by a previously-unknown fault in one of the most intensively seismically-studied regions in the world. Since a previously-unknown fault generated a large earthquake in the United States, someone at Tepco should have realized that “Hey, if there are faults we don’t know about in North America, maybe there are faults we don’t know about in Japan too! It’s on the very same tectonic plate after all! If faults we don’t know about can generate significant quakes in North America, maybe they can do that in Japan too! And if an unknown fault can generate a significant quake, maybe it can generate a significant tsunami too!”
Another striking thing about this sequence of events is that so far, there’s no evidence that someone anywhere inside Tepco was sounding the alarm about all these risks that required no specialized knowledge to recognize. Maybe there were such people and we haven’t heard about them yet. In his book Only the Paranoid Survive, Andy Grove notes that every organization has “Cassandras” who sound the alarm about risks that others are ignoring. To reduce the risk of a disaster, reward and cultivate the Cassandras in your own organization. You don’t even have to reward them financially. Reward them by listening to them and taking them seriously!
Product and Project Managers Must Manage Risk Proactively
Don’t be the next Tepco. Use your imagination. Think creatively with an open mind. Fertilize your thinking with diverse sources of information. Envision problems that could happen with your product or project before they happen. Develop a list of all the bad things that could happen and estimate the probability of each one. Review your assumptions and projections periodically and whenever you learn new information. Then ask yourself what you can do to reduce the possibility of bad events or to reduce the severity of the effects they will have.