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Petroski on Engineering: The Normalization of Deviance

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naperlou
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Re: Deviance is anything but normal
naperlou   1/5/2012 9:50:25 AM
It is interesting to draw parallels between the Space Shuttle and oil drilling.  While deep water drilling is much more complex than most other drilling, the Shuttle is something altogether different and more complex.  In the early days of rocket development, there were many failures.  Then, expendables became very reliable, although there are still occasional failures.  The thing that differentiates the Shuttle Program is that it invoives manned flight and that it was an attempt to present space flight as a routine, repeatable activity like airline travel.  It most decidely is not.  Between the high cost and high visibility of the program, failures are magnified.  We accept far more danger when we drvie a car. 

More people died in the Deep Horizon accident than in the Challenger accident.  In addition, there was significant environmental damage in the oil rig disaster than in the Shuttle accident. 

Alexander Wolfe
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Re: Deviance is anything but normal
Alexander Wolfe   1/5/2012 8:59:34 AM
Excellent analysis, and the Challenger example spotlights the psychological aspect of the "normalization of deviance" culture which works its way into the engineering mindset in situations where the failure rate has previously been so low that it's easy(easier) to coerce the engineers responsible for ensuring safety that things have been OK for so long, why should this time be any different. In any life situation, there's pressure to conform to the group, and that's exploited in situations such as those described here. That's why when the disastrous consequences come, they seem to be outliers, but in reality they're not and are to be expected.

Beth Stackpole
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Deviance is anything but normal
Beth Stackpole   1/5/2012 7:05:38 AM
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Just reading Professor Petroski's post reminded me of watching those heart-wrenching images of oil gushing into the gulf and I'm glad it did. Truth is, once disasters like the BP oil spill or Japan's Fukushima are behind us (or at least out of sight in the media), the general public tends to forget and move on, which lets the corporate conglomerates get away with the human failure that Petroski's describes--the finger pointing and internal jockeying for where to place blame. Seems to me that dollars could have been well spent solving the mechanical problem--that is, redesigning or reengineering the blow-out preventor to operate more effectively no matter that it was a complex piece of machinery. Probably would have been far less painful to the bottom line then the PR and environmental recovery effort  that befell them after the disaster.

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