One of the most valuable tools in the project manager’s tool kit is lessons learned. It can give a twenty-twenty hindsight perspective of a project to help avoid the mistakes of the past. George Santayana noted Spanish philosopher who, in Volume 1 of his Reason in Common Sense, coined the phrase “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sometimes, while we don’t know whether or not a “lessons learned” was conducted, it is good to go back and look at a project to see what we can learn so we don’t repeat history. Since the connection between sustainability and project management is a relatively new concept, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at an infamous project, Union Carbide’s Plant in Bhopal, India, from a sustainability perspective.
Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas began leaking from Union Carbide’s Plant in Bhopal, India. Before it was all over, approximately 10,000 gallons of the highly toxic gas had been released forming a deadly cloud that covered 25 square miles and killed or injured over 100,000 people. According to the Harvard Business School Case, “Bhopal became a symbol of corporate negligence and risk.” According to Newsweek, December 17, 1984, “It was like breathing fire…..” The following morning, while all the buildings were intact, it looked like a nuclear bomb hit. Dead humans and animals littered the ground. It was the worst industrial accident in history.
It is interesting that the Harvard Business Case is that the roots of this disaster could be traced back to the mid-1960s when India was in the midst of its “Green Revolution.” In a socially responsible move, India wanted to eliminate chronic food shortages by boosting food production. One of the ways they wanted to do that was to make fertilizers and pesticides more readily available, thus the need for a manufacturing plant like the UC plant that used MIC in the production of pesticides.
As always, we like to give the caveat that we were not in the room when the planning decisions for the project were conducted, so we don’t know for sure what did or didn’t drive the decisions that were made. What we can do is look at the information available, which includes an organization’s reaction to the crisis, to provide some insight to not “repeat history.”
So what could have been done that may not have been done in the initial stages of the planning process for this project, specifically, the environmental risk assessment. Remember, we are looking at this as a retrospective and making some assumptions for the purpose of discussion. The gas is known to be highly toxic, see warning label above. UC’s name is on the plant. A risk encountered is whether or not UC will have enough control over the design and construction of the plant to provide the proper precautions when building this facility in the area of a city with a population of 900,000. The answer in hindsight is no, for a variety of reasons; vital parts of the plant including monitoring instrumentation and vent gas scrubbers manufactured in India by Indians (no control by US UC), limited safety training, employees selected and trained in India, many changes in design and configuration changes during the 10 years of construction, in other words, ceding of control to the Indians. Is that a good scenario for a company that has its name on the door? An observation we make because of the case study and other research into the disaster is that the executives of the US based UC seem to have felt that there was no liability for them because of the role of the Indian Government and the Indian engineers, builders, etc. Can that kind of accountability be delegated? We don’t think so. Sure, some of the responsibility can be delegated, but if your name is on the door, your name is on the door, and some of the profits are being returned to the US. You have no “case” for delegation of accountability.
Because of the toxicity of the gas, and the lack of control over some of the key safety factors, wouldn’t it be wise to take a very close look at the potential of a leak. Even if the likelihood is low, the impact will be very high. We conclude that there wasn’t much of a risk analysis done on the possibility of a leak by the circumstances surrounding the leak and the reaction to it. The storage tank holding the MIC showed a dangerously high pressure reading, but by the time it was caught, it was too late. At 2am (almost two hours after the tank started leaking) the plant’s emergency siren sounded. Thinking that a fire had broken out, “hundreds rushed toward the plant” right into the path of the gas. “The train station was littered with the bodies of railroad employees…tying up the station for 20 hours making it impossible to flee the disaster area.” Those who were wealthy enough to have cars tried to escape but were blinded by the gas causing numerous accidents. We would have thought that if the risk of a leak was more closely analyzed, a better plan would have been in place.
Looking back on the disaster, it is easy to speculate on what should have been done. But isn’t that what lessons learned are for? Some questions that could be asked:
We have included sustainability as a criterion, which probably wasn’t as big a concern then as it is today and will be even more in the future. However, then and now, the consequences are the same; consumer backlash, law suits, devaluation of a company's stocks, etc. There are clear sustainability issues involved in this case, whether they called them that at the time, or not. Looking back on some of these “environmental” disasters can give project manager’s valuable insights for the future.
Harvard Business School International Business Cases, Union Carbide’s Bhopal Plant, Rev. September 4, 1996.
This is a great depiction of balancing project risk (walking the tight rope) yet having the safety net (pillow) of risk management. The concept is particularly important when a project management views their project through an environmental lens. Viewing a project through an environmental lens doesn’t mean “pursing environmental solutions above all else.” What it does mean is; first, there is a balance to be struck between planet, people, and profits, and second, it is the management of environmental risks that will provide the “pillow”.
So, how do we achieve that balance? How do we manage environmental risks? In order to find the balance, we first need to find the risks. The project’s charter is the first place to look for environmental risks. Is there an enterprise-wide environmental (sustainability) policy? This is a decision point. It there is one, is it connected to the project’s goal and objectives? This is another decision point. If there is no connection, we need to push back to ensure that the connection exists. If the enterprise does not have a sustainability policy*, then there should be some push back to establish one.
If there is a deficiency in either the enterprise’s sustainability policy and/or the connection between the project and the enterprise, why should it be the role of the project manager to push back? Because we are where the “rubber meets the road”. We are where “ideas become real.” Everything an enterprise does is a project. Project managers are business leaders. I realize that we sometimes think of ourselves between some restrictive boundaries, after the project charter and at the turnover to ongoing operations. It is time we break out of those boundaries and take a more prominent role in the enterprise. After all, isn’t that what the chief project officer (CPO) is intended to do? The concept of CPO says that project management has a place at the “executive table", as a contributor to enterprise strategy. Let’s say, for argument sake, that this is the future of project management. Even if it is not, there are good reasons to consider the sustainability risks in project risk identification.
There are stakeholders (people) who strongly believe that sustainability should be part of any project. Companies are pushing back on suppliers, insisting that if they want to do business with the company, that they produce some proof that they are using sustainable practices. Government regulations, mandates, and standards have to be considered. A big consideration is financial. It makes “cents” to become more sustainable. Greening your projects will save dollars. Whether those dollar savings are immediate or long-term will depend on the nature of the project. The risk, here, or rather the consequences, of not considering the environmental aspects of the project, could mean that the project costs (profits) could be adversely affected. There are stakeholders (people) who will be directly affected by the project, like the fisherman of the Gulf Coast.
The risks of not considering the regulations, mandates, and standards are that the project could be delayed, shutdown, or become obsolete because the output is considered damaging to the environment. The risks of alienating or damaging stakeholders are obvious. In some instances, the environment (planet) will be affected, no matter where the project lies along the “green spectrum”; green by definition (wind farms), green by project impact (off shore oil drilling), green by product impact (K-cups of single service coffee makers), or green in general (software packaging). In no way are we advocating that every project decision, and these decision are not made just in the concept and planning phases of the project’s life cycle but are made throughout the life cycle, be made in favor of sustainability. What we are saying is that it is extremely important to at least consider those risks in the usual process of risk management; identification, quantification, assessment, response, monitor, and control.
*Note: Don’t forget to look for a corporate social responsibility (CSR) statement. CSR and sustainability are inextricably connected.
A very interesting (and sustained!) discussion on LinkedIn is also very much in line with the philosophy of sustainability thinking in project management.
This discussion also keys off of Dave Shirley's excellent post here at Projects At Work, using the Survivor show as an analogy.
Like many interesting questions in life, the question is very simple but has very deep implications.
Robert Lewis, the original poster, asked – in December of 2009 (!) - for people’s reaction to this statement:
"Project managers should take responsibility for project success, not just the magic triangle of schedule, scope and budget. Success - achievement of the planned business benefits - takes much more."
The conversation has been lively, already collecting well over 250 comments, and a conversation which has been going on for a year and a half. Some are taking an environmental angle, which is appropriate here, in our opinion, but the broader – triple bottom line – aspect applies as well, and that’s what’s generating a lot of the interest. In fact, we chose today’s blog post image carefully. It’s about your impression. And it’s about – to paraphrase Tom Cruise’s character in Jerry Magure, “Show me the Monet!”.
Can we, should, we, must we, as project managers, be connected to the long-term success of the product of the project? Or are we bound to respect the triple (and with the 4th Edition PMBOK® Guide, now multi-faceted) constraints of scope, schedule, resources, risk, and quality of the project itself?
This, in turn, forces a few very provocative and productive thought processes in which we should definitely engage ourselves and our teams as project managers, forgetting (for the moment) the ‘green’ aspects of the project.
What does success look like for our project?
By asking these questions we:
So we’d like to thank Robert Lewis for posing his original question and the 200+ people who have energized it.
We invite you to participate in that LinkedIn conversation or to contribute here with your comments.
This is not trivial. This debate over whether (or from our view, request that) project managers take on a longer-term view, is fundamental to project managers increasing their value to their enterprises and to projects having a greater chance at true (lasting) success.
Feel free to jump in the discussion – here and/or on LinkedIn.