If a farmer receives a call from a neighbor that one of his sheep has escaped and is standing in the road, he will go out, fetch the sheep, and put it back in the field where it belongs.  Most likely the farmer will then make a tour of the hedgerows and fences to see where the sheep got out, and close up the hole when he finds it.  Certainly, if he gets two such calls about his sheep standing in the road he will make damned sure he finds the hole in the fence.

That’s because farmers are sensible folk.  Oil and gas managers?  Less so.  If you approach any random manager in a modern oil and gas organisation – let’s say a Procurement Manager – and tell him a purchase order for a vital spare part has been stuck in his department for the past 6 weeks without going anywhere, he will probably ask you for a few details, find the purchase order himself, and then get it issued.  And then he’ll sit back and enjoy the warm glow of satisfaction he gets from a job well done, a problem solved, and make a mental note to include this episode in the weekly report under the heading “Achievements”.  If he does this often enough, it might even warrant a mention on his CV.

What the Procurement Manager will rarely do is find out why this PO was stuck in the system for 6 weeks and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.  In other words, he’ll keep letting the sheep escape onto the road and only see the problem as being this one sheep on the road right now.  You can probably imagine what the farmer’s neighbor will think of him after the third phone call.  It will be much the same opinion that an engineer will have of the Procurement Manager.

The Procurement Manager will not solve the root cause of the problem for one of two reasons:

1. He knows what the problem is, but lacks the knowledge, authority, or courage to solve it.  Usually this takes the form of a possibly useless subordinate who is not being managed properly, but who enjoys continued employment in the role.

2. He doesn’t realise that managing a process for the purpose of achieving a desirable outcome is his reason for being employed.

A lot of managers are former engineers or other junior staff who have shown technical competence or, more usually, served time or are of a certain age.  The problem with this method of selecting managers is that it ignores the fact that management is more about personality than technical ability.  Engineers tend to focus intently on details, and the better engineers do this more than the not-so-good ones.  However, the latter often have a better grasp on the context in which calculations are taking place and a better appreciation of external factors not directly related to their own discipline, which is why most project engineers are former discipline engineers who found they either weren’t very good at calculations or got bored doing them.

What the oil industry rarely does is select youngsters who show signs of having a personality more suited to management than technical work – of which an ability to see the broader picture is but one of several – and assign them small, fairly trivial management tasks in order for them to gain experience in managing a process with the aim of achieving certain goals.  One of the greatest lies told to young people in the oil industry is that you need experience to be a manager.  This is blatantly untrue: whilst experience is required to manage a complex situation, very little experience is required to manage something simple.  When I was in my teens I had a part-time job in a sawmill, and my normal duties were to sweep floors, carry boards about, fill up trucks with diesel, and be the butt of everyone else’s jokes.  But occasionally the foreman would say to me something like:

“Jake, every time the delivery truck comes in our yard is blocked while it unloads, and we can’t get the forklift into the main shed.  If we could shift those racks somewhere else, maybe by getting rid of that old diesel tank, the truck could park over there and we’d still be able to get in and out.  Can you sort something out?”

And I’d take a few measurements, run around for a bit looking at various things, and come up with an idea of how I thought it could be done.  This was better than pushing a broom about!  Then I’d run it by the foreman and he’d make a few suggestions, and then tell me to get on with it.  I’d ask the other guys for help when I needed it (e.g. from the forklift driver), telling them I’m reorganizing the yard for the foreman, and in a day or two get it done.  I didn’t have any experience in arranging the yards in a sawmill, but what I did have was the competence to run a small job and complete each task as necessary without continuous instruction.  The foreman recognized I had this ability, and was probably glad he didn’t have to take one of his skilled operators off the machines to do it.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but in doing these things in that sawmill I was engaged in management: the managing of a process, or sequence of tasks, to achieve a specific set of goals.

I tell the above anecdote to demonstrate that experience is not required to manage something: competence is.  But the oil industry is obsessed with a belief that management is something that must be earned only via strict technical competence or age, and as such denies its young employees the chance to hone their management skills on simple projects.  Instead, they wait until they are approaching 50 before catapulting them into the Project Manager position on a nasty, brutal project in some seriously challenging environment like Kazakhstan and expect that they will learn and apply fundamental management concepts on their first try.  Almost none of them do.  Half of them were never suited to management anyway, and the half that might have been were never given the chance to learn in a more forgiving environment.

The former engineer who is out of his or her depth will almost inevitably retreat into their comfort zone of details at the expense of the overall goal, leading to attempts to solve every immediate problem which arises, which is known as firefighting.  Firefighting is so common in the modern oil and gas industry that it is noticeable only by its absence, otherwise it goes unremarked as business as usual.  Given how much money is spent on management training courses in the oil and gas industry, it is perhaps surprising how few managers actually understand the fundamental principle that they are supposed to manage the process by which tasks get completed, not carry out the tasks themselves.  The clue is in the job title.

Farmers: generally not fuckwits.



2 Responses to Firefighting

  1. Adam says:

    I worked as a trainer and assessor in the oil & gas industry and I agree with all of the above. Management is problem solving. The best managers solve problems before they eventuate. They are able to connect dots to see potential outcomes. These are the best managers and they make it look easy because to other people they seem to never have problems. The reality is that the problems were there, they just got solved early.

    Teaching risk management was frustratingly hilarious for me as the vast majority of people completely misunderstand the concepts involved, (including those supposedly teaching it.) You are getting your ducks in a row to avoid a fuck up. You are not trying to predict a fuck up. Management were the most clueless about this process. There’s always one guy on a rig who knew it was going to shit before it happened, and he’s usually the guy nobody listened to.

    • Jake Barnes says:


      Thanks for commenting, and welcome!

      You are getting your ducks in a row to avoid a fuck up. You are not trying to predict a fuck up.

      This is excellent, expresses the point perfectly.