Wednesday, June 16, 2010

I'm a lousy supervisor.... and how this relates to the oil tragedy in the Gulf

When I practiced with a firm, assignments came largely from the senior partners. This was true for junior partners and the greenest associates alike. We juniors had supervisory responsibilities for new hires. We were to shepherd the youngsters through their tasks and, of course, make sure they hit their billing targets. We were evaluated by the senior partners on how well the new kids performed. The new hires were also evaluated by the senior partners; we juniors lacked the authority to hire, fire or even discipline.

I always felt that an employee should approach his (or her) job as if he (or she) were the owner, not a mere wage slave. To me, that meant agonizing over typos in letters and pleadings -- sending unacceptable work back as needed, and, if necessary, for reasons of time sensitivity or otherwise, doing it oneself. (That's how we got computers in my office. But that's another story.)

I thought associates should consider why an assignment should be done and question whether there were other ways of accomplishing the purpose. Should we really answer the complaint -- or was there a basis on which to move to strike or dismiss? Would that merely educate the other side or might it result in a quick disposition? Associates, though, were quite literal: The senior partner said prepare an answer and deny everything. Why are you asking me to do something different?

Yes, there were form interrogatories even then -- though not yet prescribed by the Illinois Supreme Court -- but that didn't mean form interrogatories should be served in every case. What are we looking for here? What do we expect to get? What does the investigation suggest in terms of customized questions? I wanted each of my new charges to go through this analysis in every case. Each new charge, in turn, realized that there was only so much time that could be billed to the task regardless of the thought process -- so that should be eliminated.

I had associates tell me, with a straight face, that they wanted to "have a life" -- to be able to go home at the end of the day and enjoy the world beyond the office walls.

And I didn't?

Yet, I was doing my work during the day and re-doing their work at night and becoming increasingly angry and frustrated. And I was "eating" a lot of time: I couldn't bill for doing what was already "done" and I couldn't cut the youngsters' time too savagely even though I'd shredded their output. And, no matter what I did, I was a lousy supervisor -- the kid wasn't productive enough -- I was doing too much myself -- I couldn't "delegate" -- or (my favorite) I was "too hard" on the youngster.

Now, I'll tell you what this diffused management system was really all about: The senior partners did not want to be burdened with looking at rookie work product -- but they didn't want to give up control over the kids either.

Everyone knows the old cliche about lawyers being control freaks. I know I am. But the senior partners at my old firm took control issues to ridiculous lengths: They wouldn't allow anyone else to open the morning mail. Seriously.

These unhappy memories are not something I wallow in on a regular basis. (Not any more, anyway. It did take a few years....)

But they came back to me as I read about the disastrous BP oil spill. Unlike their competitors, BP liked to hire their exploration work out -- thus Transocean and Halliburton were running the Deepwater Horizon when it blew up.

Or were they?

The Wall Street Journal, reported on May 27 that:
[B]y mid-April, the well seemed a qualified success. BP was convinced it had found a lot of oil. Until engineers in Houston could make plans to start pumping it out, the workers on the nearly complete well, in a standard practice, would plug it and temporarily abandon it.

One of the final tasks was to cement in place the steel pipe that ran into the oil reservoir. The cement would fill the space between the outside of the pipe and the rock, preventing any gas from flowing up the sides.

Halliburton, the cementing contractor, advised BP to install numerous devices to make sure the pipe was centered in the well before pumping cement, according to Halliburton documents, provided to congressional investigators and seen by the Journal. Otherwise, the cement might develop small channels that gas could squeeze through.

In an April 18 report to BP, Halliburton warned that if BP didn't use more centering devices, the well would likely have "a SEVERE gas flow problem." Still, BP decided to install fewer of the devices than Halliburton recommended—six instead of 21.
Congressional investigators have apparently found a paper trail that backs up how BP failed to let Halliburton do its job. From an AP report, quoted in USA Today:
BP rejected Halliburton's recommendation to use 21 "centralizers" to make sure the casing ran down the center of the well bore. Instead, BP used six centralizers.

In an e-mail on April 16, a BP official involved in the decision explained: "It will take 10 hours to install them. I do not like this." Later that day, another official recognized the risks of proceeding with insufficient centralizers but commented: "Who cares, it's done, end of story, will probably be fine."

The lawmakers also said BP also decided against a nine- to 12-hour procedure known as a "cement bond log" that would have tested the integrity of the cement. A team from Schlumberger, an oil services firm, was on board the rig, but BP sent the team home on a regularly scheduled helicopter flight the morning of April 20.

Less than 12 hours later, the rig exploded.
You know BP has to be awful when Halliburton comes off as sympathetic by comparison....

Anyway, the problem here is not unlike that in my old firm -- if you put people in charge of something, you have to let them be in charge and do it their way. If you merely pretend to put people in charge, but undermine or overrule them at every decision point, bad things will happen.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

excellent analogy curmy. and you are right, halliburton is not the bad guy all the time, is it?

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

A very good last paragraph there. So true.

Barb said...

Oh... you came back to blog a new post. I was going to tap tap tap at you and nag you a little.

I like the last paragraph, too. Does it apply to married people as well? Just wondering..