Once upon a time . . .

Story telling in the process and energy industries

Communicating — Not Telling

One of the founders of the discipline of process safety was Trevor Kletz. He understood that human beings communicate best not by reading reports, articles or presentations but through stories. Which is why, following his death in the year 2013, we wrote the eulogy That would be telling

Few of us have followed his leadership.

Bill Baker, principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling, states,

Storytelling is the mother of all ‘pull’ marketing strategies. It encourages dialogue, engagement and interaction among equals – an exchange of meaning between people. Yet many companies and brands are still relentlessly pushing messages out, hoping that with enough repetition, something will stick.

Managers and technical leaders tend to see communication in terms of conveying information to the work force. For example, at one facility a pressure vessel exploded. In the follow up to the event it became clear that the lead technicians did not understand the concept of Maximum Allowable Working Pressure (MAWP) and that they did not know the MAWP values of the vessels under their control. So management and their process safety consultant implemented a training/education program to do with the concept of MAWP and they then made sure that information to do with specific MAWP values was readily available in the control room. There was nothing wrong with this communication strategy. But it would have been much more effective if it could have been supplemented with stories and videos showing what happens if pressures do go above MAWP.

Human beings communicate best by story-telling. Yet most professionals in the process industries miss this opportunity. Instead, they prefer reports, charts and presentations. This is a missed opportunity. And it is for this reason that some of our Safety Moments are written as stories.

The Meaning of a Story

One of the key features of a story is that the message is not explicit — each reader will put his or her own interpretation on it. Meaning is not provided by the author — all that he or she is doing is putting words on paper. What those words mean is up to the reader.

Prodigal son as meaning of a story

Consider the biblical story often referred to as “The Parable of the Lost Son”. Initially a reader would interpret this story as being “about” a young man who leaves home, squanders his fortune and then returns home, where his father welcomes his joyously. But the story is also "about" the responsible, hard-working, rule-abiding and thrifty elder son who  does not receive his father’s affection. Or maybe the story is “about” the father and his behavior. The reader has to decide. And interpretation becomes even more tricky when the story is treated as a metaphor or allegory. Then the question becomes who do each of these characters represent.

With these thoughts in mind consider Safety Moment #33: Bang, Bang. It tells the story of an experienced boiler house superintendent and his knowledge of the boilers that he operated for many years. This person was not named — indeed, the story has taken on so many lives that we can reasonably treat that superintendent as a fictional character. Nevertheless, it is a story about a person and his interactions with other people — in this case the managers of the company. It is the people part of the Safety Moment that packs the punch.

What is this story “about”? Here are some possible interpretations.

  • The need to capture the experience of retirees before they depart.
  • The difference between the roles of consultants and contract workers.
  • The need to improve process hazards analysis techniques.
  • A recognition that, no matter how good our safety and management systems may be, there will always be issues that we cannot understand.
  • The need to improve the quality of the facility’s operating procedures and training.
  • The distinction between education and training.
  • The recognition that it is worth paying good money for safety.

Story Outline

A traditional story contains the following elements.

  • Characters
  • Siting
  • Plot
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

Returning to Safety Moment #33, 

  • The characters are the superintendent and the facility management (no names are provided).
  • There are two sites. The first is the boiler house where the action takes place. The second site we never see, but it is there in the background. It is the facility manager’s office and the emails he is receiving from his bosses about keeping costs down.
  • The plot is to do with mystery of the banging in the piping system.
  • The conflict centers around the invoice that the superintendent submitted for his work.
  • The resolution provides a justification for that invoice.

Dramatic Pictures

Not only do humans like stories, they particularly like stories that are dramatic and even sensational. Which means that we should share stories about incidents that have taken place elsewhere. We are currently developing an Operational Excellence Assessment system. One of the 18 sections in that system is ‘1. Culture’. And an important part of culture is having a good knowledge of incidents, including near misses.

If a story can incorporate pictures or videos then its impact will be dramatically enhanced. For example, the video clip of the moment when the Piper Alpha riser ruptured shows us just how bad incidents can be.

Piper Alpha Newspaper

In earlier Safety Moments we have talked about some of the difficulties to do with the fact that “Information is endlessly available” to us on the Internet. But one of the upsides of the internet is that it allows us to communicate using pictures and videos. The following picture from the organization Safeteng.net is a fine example.

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