An Interview With Ken Rivers, Former CEO Of Shell Refining New Zealand And Former President Of The Institution Of Chemical Engineers.
Ken shares his insights into managing catastrophic risks and being an effective leader. He has over 35 years experience of the international downstream oil industry with Shell. In New Zealand he was CEO of Refining NZ. He was previously responsible for Shell’s refining and petrochemical operations in the UK. He is a past President of UK Petroleum Industry Association and past president of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Ken studied chemical engineering at Cambridge University and is a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and a Chartered Engineer. He has also been Member of the Institute of Directors in both the UK and New Zealand.
Ken, thank you very much for sharing some experiences and some views of risk. I consider you as Mr. Motivator when it comes to leadership and risk management because you have such passion for the subject. So, where does that come from? What motivates Mr. Motivator when it comes to controlling risk?Ken
Early in my early working life as a chemical engineer working on refineries, I understood that safety was important. But that was only an intellectual understanding. The thing that really switched me on was an incident that took place when I was looking after a refinery in Malaysia. One of my supervisors had ripped his arm and was in hospital. I went to the local hospital and he was there lying on a bed, his arm was all bloody and mangled. His wife and kids were outside crying, and they didn't know when their dad was coming home. At that point I realised I hadn't got safety at all. I just had not. I realised, it's about people, it's about lives. It's not just a system or set of documents or a risk assessment. It's pain, and it's anguish, and its family. And even today, tears well to my eyes when I talk about it, because it was a moment of realisation where I thought I'd got it and I hadn't.
The interesting thing for me, when I talk to leaders today, is how I can get to the stage where I can create the conditions where it feels like that to them? Because if we can get to that condition, then I think we hook them really, because safety is in their head and it's also so hooked in the heart that it never goes away.Ian
Do you think that's part of the human psyche such that unless you experienced the pain personally accidents only have a glancing impact on us? If we pass accidents on motorways and we slow down for 10 minutes or so and then we are back to our normal speed. Like you I’ve talked to CEOs and leaders and they talk a good talk, but you can tell it's not in their hearts. Do you think it's because you've got to be that close to pain for it to stick?Ken
One of the things I try to do is to illustrate the impact. I remember a video about a worker who lost his eyesight when cleaning some equipment. I thought it would be impactful to hear from him. The interesting point is he's got out the other side, he's made something of his life, which is why he is telling his story, he's moved on from it. The person who really made an impact was his colleague, who had grabbed him, and rushed him into the safety shower and wash him down. Remarkably, 15 years after the incident, he's still a broken person, he has never got over it. How do you get the leaders into that place?
I use the journey from unconscious competence to unconscious competence. In our industry we have rules, procedures, systems. We also attend training courses and receive a certificate that says you're competent. But then, as with driving, people don’t remember all the procedures such as putting the seatbelt on, changing gear, operating the clutch. We have successfully internalised the rules and then the sudden wake-up call when say the lorry in front brakes, and you must brake and nearly crash. Then you realise that you have moved from unconscious competence right back to unconscious incompetence.
So how do you keep people in that alert state against risk?Ken
I always ask leaders who say ‘safety is our top priority, and we are in the top quartile, we're unconsciously competent with regard to safety’ about an accident unrelated to our industry such as an aircraft accident. For instance, what would be your learning from the recent accident involving a United Airlines flight over Denver where part of the engine fell off onto homes below? Some may think because it’s the airline industry, I can't learn from that. If it happens to you, you might remember it, especially if it happens on the plant were you're located. It's probably in your mind somewhere if it happens on an associate plant. While you might remember it, if it happens on the same plant but another site. Well, maybe not. In fact, the further it is from your reality, the more you feel you can discount it.
Another example is perhaps the company head office have just decided to send the snap inspection team to your facility. How do you feel about that? Many would stress about getting things ready and to ensure everything is in order in case any problems are discovered. The reality is that third party audits are not something to be feared or frightened about, they are to be welcomed because one of two things will happen. The auditors may find everything is as you expected, which is great news, or they'll find a defect, which again, is great, because then you can improve.
These two questions really, really help get leaders to question their mindset. Perhaps, I can't get to the hearts bit because I can't put them in front or close enough to an incident, but I can test their thinking much harder than I might otherwise do to make sure that we use our intellect to keep questioning ourselves. Working with the hazards in our industry it’s difficult to grasp the magnitude of what potentially can go wrong. I’ve found that talking to people about risk or hazard is not fruitful. It’s like road safety. We've all driven and we've all experienced or seen or witnessed accidents but most of us have never been blown up or involved in a toxic gas cloud. So how should people actually visualise the hazard?
There is another tool, which I use. Let me give you an example. When I was in New Zealand, one of the biggest industries is the dairy sector. This involves an awful lot of milk processing to remove water and reconstitute the dairy produce afterwards so quality is not lost. It requires evaporative drying and a lot of refrigeration with ammonia. I was asked to talk to a milk production factory, because there were ammonia releases and problems with working in confined spaces. They also had methane explosions in compressors. Their view was they would never be any good at managing high hazard events as it was outside their normal competences managing all the potential causes. My view was that they could. I reflected on their absolutely amazing compliance and awareness and commitment to hygiene and cleanliness. I pointed out the use of the red line. If you go beyond the red line, you've got to wear full hygiene PPE, so the food is not contaminated. The management of industrial hygiene and protecting against food contamination and food safety is second to none. My point was if you can do that for hygiene you can bring that rigour to safety. So, all you do is to apply the appropriate techniques and tools utilised for hygiene and apply them to safety. And they did. And it worked.
By unlocking understanding, by applying the techniques from one subject, like food hygiene, into safety you can make gigantic and quick strides.
Ken, you're an enormous inspiration to lots of people in the industry. And I've heard so many people talk about you in a very positive light. I was wondering who in your career was a major influence on you, either in terms of safety, but just generally about your career.Ken
I've been very, very fortunate I've had some really good bosses and some really bad bosses. I learned probably more from the bad bosses than from the good bosses, in terms of understanding and knowing that if you behave in that way, it's not really effective to achieve business outcomes.
One of the most important learnings I had was from a guy had I worked with in New Zealand. He helped me to understand more about how you can be even more effective by thinking in layers. Focussing on the technical failings from an incident leads to just a technical improvement. Then down at the next level you may think of the activity such as start-up of a process unit when the technical failing is critical. The next level down is about what are the forces at play, such as lots of unscheduled and non-standard activities. Supervision is probably heavily overloaded with huge time constraints. So actually, it's a set of pressures and conditions not just the activity which underlies the failings. Then at the bottom level , driving cause of all failings is about how we think about problems.
If we work at the event level, we can stop that event happening again. Focussing on the prevailing mindset gets to the real source of improvement. For example, at the Buncefield fuel storage site major incident the prevailing mental model was that is okay, in an extreme emergency, to release flammable, explosive or toxic material into the atmosphere. If we changed that mindset, then we would not only stop Buncefield, we could have prevented BP Texas City and a whole raft of others.
In one of the sites I was working, it was really interesting, looking at the prevailing mental model, which was ‘good people can't do bad things, can they?’. Which meant that provided everybody did the best that they could, we just had to accept what the outcomes were.
The biggest barrier to effective management of major hazards in the UK, is how do we instil a mindset to make good practice into common practice. The key thing is a mental model that says, we don't need to keep working on all sorts of new things, what we've really got to do, as a first priority, is make sure that we are applying the knowledge and learnings consistently, comprehensively and continuously. If we can do that, we'll make a big strides.
The Head of Shell challenged my thinking by saying fatal accidents at work are no longer acceptable. Shell is a big company operating worldwide in 170 countries. From then onwards some of the things we had thought were acceptable all of a sudden weren't. For example, there was a case I think in Romania, where we had tanker drivers working through the night to deliver petrol retail sites. One of our contractor drivers crashed into a horse and cart that was on the wrong side of the road, without lights in the middle of the night. Normally, we would conclude that there was nothing we could have done about that. But from that point we decided to halt night deliveries because we couldn't control the fact that there could be vehicles on the road without lights.
The challenge is about the things we accept in safety which aren’t actually acceptable.
To motivate people I always start my every presentation with photograph of Marsden Point Refinery, Whangarei, New Zealand. A pristine environment and the meeting place of for whales. People collect shellfish from the beaches to eat, and there’s an oil refinery there. It challenges the paradigm that you can't have potentially dirty, potentially environmentally catastrophic, high risk high hazard industries, in a pristine environment. You can and it works. I always end my presentations with a Maori quote:
He tino nui rawa ou mahi kia kore e mahi nui tonu".
We have come too far not to go further.
We have done too much not to do more.
Thank you, Ken, for sharing your deep insights and for once more inspiring us to go further in risk management.