Article - Issue 8, May 2001

Risk management and engineering

John Turnbull FREng

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Modern society seems to be preoccupied by risk and how to avoid it. And yet we choose to participate in dangerous sports, we demand that exotic foods are available all year and we want to be able to travel anywhere at any time. Can engineers use concepts of risk management to present a more balanced view?

The meaning and implications of ‘risk’ have become contentious topics. The scientific, medical and engineering communities feel especially threatened as the media seem to stir up real and imagined risks in an exaggerated way. Public concerns often appear to defy logic. This obsession with risk is seen as a major factor in the alienation of the public at large from the ‘science-based’ community.

However, I believe that by addressing risk in a more explicit way we can convert it from a barrier into a bridge. Because of its general nature and applicability, we can use risk management to facilitate communication with the media, politicians and the public at large. But it can also play an important role in breaking down some of the obsolete barriers between the different engineering disciplines.

Where does risk management fit in?

All of mankind knows that life is a risky business. We all aim to maximise our exposure to the ‘good’ risks and to minimise our exposure to the ‘bad’ ones. This process is called risk management. But it is not easy. As Burns put it: The best-laid schemes o’ mice an men gang aft agley.

Each action can go wrong. Or it can have unexpected side effects. We frequently miscalculate what is really beneficial for the community or ourselves. We take precautions against unwanted eventualities. This is generally straightforward for familiar, everyday activities like crossing the street. But for novel and complex activities we lack experience and precedent. Therefore considerable analysis and planning are required to decide what might go wrong and what to do about it. Furthermore, deciding what is ‘novel and complex’ is a critical skill, frequently clouded by pride and emotion. We often like to think that we know more than we do and are reluctant to admit that we are in unknown territory.

Many professional activities demand a highly analytical and intellectual approach to risk management. Military strategy, politics and banking are typical examples. But the engineer has a particular need for a very high level of risk management skill. Engineering is always pushing up against the novel and unfamiliar. The technologies we employ are complex and highly interactive, often with side effects that are difficult to foresee. Furthermore, the intended beneficiaries of technology frequently do not know what they are getting until the results have been delivered!

Why is risk management so important today?

The news media suggest that risk is one of our major preoccupations. They constantly remind us that there is potential danger in everything we do, from eating and sleeping to travelling and sunbathing. It seems that we have become risk averse and, furthermore, need to find someone to blame whenever anything goes wrong.

Yet paradoxically the public does happily embrace risk. There is an ever-increasing demand for cheaper and more exotic food. We want to travel more, to go to more and more distant places. Sport must be ever more exciting for participant and spectator alike. We seem to be continually chasing after excitement.

So what is going on?

I would argue that the successes of engineering are major factors contributing to this paradox. A well-fed, clothed and housed society does not need to take risks to survive. Today we expect a flight to the Maldives to be as safe as crossing the street and, by the way, not be harmful to the environment. The higher value placed on life – the expectation that we can wage war without casualties – is not due to a moral revival. But it is a direct consequence of raised expectations generated by the application of technology to provide a generally safer environment and to prevent lives being ‘wasted’ by disease and famine.

Because engineering has delivered so much, society is right to expect more. We live, in the West, in a state of unparalleled prosperity and comfort. So if some engineer thinks that he or she can improve on this state they had better do it without putting any of this in jeopardy!

We are prepared to take risks, but only those of our own choosing.

Is engineering a risky business?

Perhaps, as part of the success story, engineers portray themselves as sober, dull mechanistic types who would no more take a risk than jump over the moon. They want to appear thoroughly reliable. The neurologist Professor Susan Greenfield reportedly believes that engineers’ brains are ‘conditioned to suppress emotion’.

Yet the history of engineering is a continuous striving for better, faster, bigger and more effective products and processes. Engineering has always sought to respond to society’s needs by utilising the latest science and technology. None of this is possible without emotional commitment and risk taking. The engineering process, of its nature, results in occasional error and misjudgement. Bridges do fall down. Chemical plants explode. Planes crash. Success depends on keeping the risk of failure at a minuscule level in relation to the benefits. So good practice ensures that we learn lessons from our mistakes. Gradually, codes of practice, science-based data and technology and a much more disciplined analytical approach have given the confidence needed today to build, for example, skyscrapers in earthquake zones and jumbo jets.

Historically, the risks and hazards faced by the various engineering disciplines have been quite different. So have the various traditions of risk management techniques used by structural, electrical, chemical or aeronautical engineers. But with the boundaries between these old-style disciplines becoming increasingly blurred, or even irrelevant, one is bound to ask whether there is not a need for a different approach to risk management. A more generic and robust approach to risk management must be possible.

At the very least, we could share best practice across the disciplines. A new and fast-moving field like software engineering lacks the traditions and experience of the older disciplines but needs to apply the same lessons. If our motorcar stopped and ‘locked up’ as often as our PC we would be lucky to survive. There have been a multitude of major IT projects that have overrun cost and time. The bank’s web site is always down on the day we have to pay that urgent bill. The story behind the Y2K scare is still confusing to most of us. Surely experience from the older, ‘traditional’ engineering disciplines could have been employed to better effect.

There are whole new fields like bioengineering and genome-based technologies about to burst into the world. Anxiety about potential risks is naturally very high. We would all want to be assured that the progress of these disciplines will be founded on well-established and proven risk management procedures. We need to put in the effort to provide these.

How do engineers address commercial risk?

Our prime concern above has been with ‘making things work’. This is a traditional view of the engineer’s role. But the engineer has a much more profound role than this. Our real mission is to convert available low-value resources into more valuable products and processes. So while the means may be technological, the goal is a socio-economic one.

Engineers of my generation have experience of organisations in which sales and marketing specify the product, procurement define the raw materials and finance control the financial resources. This simple linear way of working was possibly appropriate in a world of slow-moving markets and technology. There was time and opportunity for each department to develop an understanding of the others’ requirements and capabilities. But the inherent weakness of this system became apparent if the promised financial return failed to appear. It was then always ‘the other guy’s fault’.

Today, we see a much more integrated way of working in which tasks are shared and concepts are developed in an interactive rather than linear way. To participate in such an environment the engineer must be prepared to share in the commercial risk. His or her role is not just to produce something that works technically but also to produce something that adds value. The engineer must have the skills to address the total business opportunity.

But does our traditional engineering formation provide a well enough equipped engineer to face these challenges? The messages are mixed. I find it strange that some of our engineering institutions lament the loss of so many engineering graduates to lucrative jobs in financial services. Surely they should rejoice. This is proof that an engineering education can be an ideal foundation for ‘financial engineering’. The risk management concepts involved in financial services should be second nature to a well-trained engineer.

Can engineers communicate with society?

Society sometimes seems to be so ungrateful. Mobile phone technology is so complex and demanding that few can understand it. And yet in a few years it has been harnessed to the point where it seems indispensable. Much use is trivial, but the ability to connect across Third World countries without expensive and unsightly infrastructure is fantastic. The security provided to women and children travelling away from home is a boon. The ability to establish a communications system after a disaster like an earthquake is almost miraculous.

Society takes all of this in its stride and then says that it perceives a health risk from radiation.

Of course mobile phones are not unique in this respect. Nuclear power is potentially the safest and most environmentally benign source of large-scale power currently available. But it is feared. GM foods are going through the same trauma.

A common response from the scientific and engineering community is to regard such public concerns as ‘irrational’ and to believe what is needed is ‘improved public understanding of science and technology’. Of course, there is a woeful ignorance of science and anything that can be done to improve this must be welcome. But it is wrong to portray public opposition as ignorant or stupid. Most of the media and pressure groups employ well-educated and scientifically literate people to voice the risks perceived by the public. While there is an element of opportunism here, it does not explain the anxiety that is generated.

We engineers need to stand back and analyse our contribution to changing the environment in which we live today. It is efficient and cheap transport and communications that have led to the break up of traditional small communities and made possible the ‘global village’. The community of interest that existed, say, in a Northumbrian mining village between the livelihoods of the inhabitants and the risks taken by miners and their families is no longer easy to find. The citizens of Richmond want to be able to fly out to visit friends in distant countries like the rest of us. But they do not see why the Heathrow flight path should go over their community.

We cannot as engineers leave the resolution of these issues to others. If our mission is to add value and improve the quality of people’s lives then we need to be part of the discussion that evaluates our contribution and helps to ensure that the balance of good and bad risks is managed properly and in the interests of the community. We need to ensure that the intended beneficiaries of our efforts feel that they have some choice in what we are doing for them.

The way ahead

It would be absurd to argue in the style of a French philosopher that engineering can be reduced to an exercise in risk management. But I do believe that there is enormous value to be gained by reviewing all of our engineering experience through the prism of risk management. The concepts are universal and cut across all of the traditional disciplines. So by thinking in these terms an aeronautical engineer can talk to a chemical, civil or software engineer and build a powerful base of shared experience and best practice.

But, even more importantly, the concepts of risk management are familiar across the whole of society and provide a means for engineers to engage the commercial, political and wider social world in which they operate.

The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author. But many of the ideas were stimulated by a series of seminars on Risk held at The Academy. A report on these seminars is available to those interested in having more detail. Copies can be obtained from Mr Tony Eades at The Academy (email: eadesa@raeng.co.uk). The author is in the process of converting the concepts expressed here into practical action plans for The Academy. Readers’ views and suggestions on these are welcome.

We are prepared to take risks, but only those of our own choosing

John Turnbull FREng

John Turnbull graduated in Chemical Engineering from what was then King’s College, University of Durham, and joined BP’s R&D Department. He retired in 1993 as Deputy CEO of BP Chemicals. He then provided consulting services and became a Director of The International Forum Inc., a company specialising in senior executive development. Email: jnt@turnbull.org

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