Originally published in 2013.

On January 1st at 0348 hours a young engineer employed by a service company is trying to address a problem she has encountered with a compressor on a drilling rig in the Deepwater Gulf of Mexico.  She graduated from college three years ago and went to work for a large energy services company.  However, several months ago she changed jobs and is now on her first offshore hitch as team leader with her new company, a similar size global energy services company.

She is a competent engineer but is uncertain what the company policy is regarding a piece of rotating equipment that while seemingly malfunctioning does not appear to jeopardize safety, the environment or production at the present time.  But she worries that the situation could get worse.

A quick call to the “graveyard” shift at the company onshore Operations Center is not reassuring.  Staffed by those who are too junior to be on vacation during the holiday season, the engineer she talked with had only been with company three years and actually had less field experience than she did.  His supervisor was not encouraging either.  Should he call and wake experts at this early hour?

Adding to the problem, the compressor’s data plate was mostly unreadable.  And of course, a famous Texas blue northern was blowing through.  High winds, rain and cold temperatures further impaired proper equipment identification, much less working conditions.

Both the field engineer and the operations engineer are aware that their company signed a Bridging Document with their customer as part of the new Safety and Environmental Management System (SEMS) regulatory requirements and both had attended the appropriate training for this project.  Both are knowledgeable that the Stop Work Authority (SWA) gives them the right and even the obligation to dramatically intervene with operations if they feel it necessary.

As a new mom, the field engineer is concerned that she might develop a reputation in the company as a “flaky” female if her next decision turned out to be a mistake.  The engineer at the operations center was receiving real time data feeds from the rotating equipment but he could not “feel” the vibrations like the on-site individual could and the equipment was still within tolerances.

Horns of a Dilemma

The engineers in our story are competent, qualified individuals doing a great job.  Early in their careers, they are the vanguard of field operations.  Millennials by label, they are technologically savvy and among the best and the brightest in their fields.

Things never go “bump in the night” during daylight hours in perfect weather, hence the colloquial term.  Moreover, the personal stress of a new mother concerned about her reputation and opportunities for promotion resulting from just another day at the “office” should not be underestimated by those desk bound or later and more secure in their careers.

The real world of field operations can be very unforgiving even when the results turn out OK.  All of the individuals in our story have significant “skin in this game.”

It is fine to “empower” people in the team building sessions.  It is an entirely different story in the middle of the proverbial stormy night when one’s career and reputation are on the line.  Field personnel must believe they company will stand behind their decisions, right or maybe less so.


These best and brightest can only be as good as their supporting infrastructure.  These individuals not only face engineering issues, any actions they take must be in accordance with company policy, the Bridging Document and various regulatory compliance requirements as well.  This is a lot to put on the plate of an engineering team.

However, since their childhood these individuals have been online.  Our field engineer mother looks in on her infant son at day care from her smart phone from a hundred miles offshore.  The operations center engineer routinely Skype’s with his girlfriend, a physician, who is in east Africa serving with Doctors Without Borders.[1]

These individuals are at the top of their technological game.  However, they lack the field engineering experience of their more seasoned colleagues.  This represents a demographic challenge for organizations in the middle of the Big Crew Change.  How do these young people come up to speed—quickly?

Organizations not only depend on the individuals depicted in our story for their bottom line, shareholder value is at risk if they cannot prevent the next major mega-disaster.  And what if they can prevent a minor incident?

Loss time, loss production, loss anything has economic consequences.  Most organizations run on margins that are thinner than they would like.  Oil companies are included in this group.  More importantly, energy service provider margins can be even lower.  This business model pushes our engineers to lower costs, reduce downtime and in some cases push the envelope.

Millennial Transformation

Out engineers appear to have the deck stacked against them.  Normal Accident Theory (NAT) with its roots in the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant incident suggests that tightly coupled technologies with invariant sequences and limited slack such as Deepwater drilling operations will have accidents in the normal course of events.[2]  In other words there is a certain inevitability of a major incident on their watch.  Maybe not during this rotation but a certain possibility during their careers.

However, these Millennials have a safety arsenal their parents did not—a new business model that capitalizes on their technology prowess.  The emerging field of High Reliability Theory (HRT) “emphasizes are a strategic prioritization of safety, careful attention to design and procedures, a limited degree of trial-and-error learning, redundancy, decentralized decision-making, continuous training often through simulation, and strong cultures that create a broad vigilance for and responsiveness to potential accidents.”[3]

Arm field engineers and graveyard operations watch colleagues with HRT driven policy and associated tools and then get out of their way.  A strategic or systemic safety model with a holistic perspective of the life cycle the process coupled with truly empowered key personnel trained with the latest learning tools in a strong Culture of Safety offer a new perspective for a new workforce.

Aircraft pilots routinely retain and upgrade their skills in sophisticated flight simulators.  “What If” scenarios, whereby the team can learn by trial and error environment where the worst result is a computer animated “do-over.”  Other industry sectors train using this well documented successful approach.

In a true Culture of Safety a mom would not worry about her job or career if she erred on the side of safe operations.  She would not be labeled nor would her co-worker in the Operations Center hesitate to wake up the experts New Year’s Eve.

Finally, if the maintenance history and all updated equipment manuals were available on a Smart Tablet with training videos and animation support, trepidation by those new to the company/process would lessen.  Organizational policy, its Operations Management System and bridging documentation built into the workflow will enable better decision making in the High Reliability Organization of the near future.

A decade ago the digital oilfield was labeled the Digital Oilfield of the Future.  Integrated Operations is a common model today.  The Millennial’s World-of-the-Future will mirror the concepts of an HRO.

Will she be working for you or your competitor?

End Notes

[1] http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

[2] Weick, Karl E., Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. and Obstfeld, David. (2008). Organizing for High Reliability: Processes of Collective Mindfulness. In Arjen Boin (Ed.), Crisis Management Volume III. (pp. 31-66). Los Angeles: Sage.

[3] Ibid.