How the building of Shell Oil's ultra-deepwater Ursa platform relates to human behavior

Want to improve process safety by more than 80%? Start talking about feelings with your coworkers, if you're man enough. Maybe it's finally time to give up the strong-and-silent, John Wayne baloney.

By Jim Montague

I keep my eyes and ears peeled for potentially useful news about the beats  and communities I cover, but I don't hear a lot about process control and automation out in the larger world.

So, I almost fell off my old, rusty Schwinn Airdyne exercise bicycle the other day when I was flipping the iPod "dial," and heard the tail end of a radio broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) that sounded like something about process safety at a Shell oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and talking about feelings. What the heck?

After recovering my balance and focusing, I learned that I'd run across a recent rerun of NPR's Invisibilia radio show and podcast, which is generally about the unseen forces that shape human behavior.

Originally broadcast on June 17, 2016, this episode, "The New Norm," was about how social norms determine much of people's behavior, such as how they dress, talk, eat and feel. I gathered just enough information that I was able to go back and access a podcast and transcript of the show at Invisibilia's website. They're both available here.

Maybe it's finally time to give up the strong-and-silent, John Wayne baloney

Anyway, half of the episode consisted of co-hosts Hanna Rosin and Alix Spiegel "talking to oil workers in the deep south, who tried a social experiment to transform the entrenched, macho culture of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In the process of this shift, they massively improved the safety and productivity of the rig, and also transformed the notion of what a Southern oil man is supposed to be like."

This unusual project occurred in conjunction with Shell Oil's effort to build its $1.5-billion, ultra-deepwater Ursa platform in the gulf starting in 1997. Managers and engineers were concerned about the complexities, challenges and potential dangers of drilling in water almost 4,000 feet deep, especially because more than 100 people would be working on it.

Former Shell employee Rick Fox was in charge of planning for Ursa, and he somehow met leadership coaches Claire Nuer and Marc-Andre Olivier of Learning as Leadership (LAL). They encouraged Fox and his colleagues to talk about their stress and fear as a way to "create safety together." The coaches and Ursa workers met at Shell's headquarters in New Orleans, and went through a series of intense, emotional exercises over about 18 months. For instance, drawing with pencils and colored markers led to life stories, many of which were often sad and/or traumatic.

2016 State of Technology Report: Oil & Gas

Despite the extreme awkwardness, reluctance and difficulty of this kind of sharing, in the end, the Ursa workers came together, and achieved an 84% decrease in Shell's accident rate at the time, and simultaneously exceeded its productivity rate, too. The analysis in the podcast reported that the men weren't just sharing emotions, but were also sharing information about how to work together—such as communicating problems and acknowledging mistakes sooner—which contributed to making the rig run more smoothly and safely. The participants talked about opening up as making them more vulnerable at first, but then making them into more comfortable and effective in the long run. 

Of course, I was very surprised to hear about this story on the radio in 2017, but then I realized that I was even more surprised that it took close 20 years for me to learn about it. I mean, when I researched Control's May cover article on process safety, I found that everyone in process control and automation is trying to find useful ways to improve safety, and celebrates when they make gains of just a few percent. However, the experience of the Ursa guys is basically a magic bullet for safety that no one seems to be using.   

So, maybe it's finally time to give up the strong-and-silent, John Wayne baloney. None of us are out on the plains hunting and gathering anymore. We're part of complex systems and communities, and our coworkers and fellow citizens really need us on the same page with them. Good advice, if we're strong enough to follow it.