Japan’s current crisis is the classic example of the ‘double failure’. Most people embrace failure with contingency plans for the inevitable visit by Murphy. The real problem then happens when Plan B fails as well. The spare tire in the boot…that is also flat. Japan is well prepared for earthquakes, but the tsunami on top of it was a double blow combo that overwhelmed the most carefully thought out plans of the Fukushima nuclear power station.
Bob Sullivan writes a brilliant piece ‘Why ‘Plan B’ often works out badly’ which examines the increasingly inexorable spectre of failure in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Another problem with the increasingly ‘black box’ nature of the world is the heightened difficulty of embrace its failure with effective Plan Bs. He examines different types of failure such as ‘synchronisation failures’ and ‘bad fallback plans’.
“Engineers used to talk about guarding against the ‘single point of failure’ when designing critical systems like aircraft control systems or nuclear power plants. But rarely does one mistake or event cause a catastrophe. As we’ve seen in Japan, disaster is usually a function of multiple mistakes and a string of bad luck, often called an ‘event cascade’ or ‘propagating failures.’… Making matters worse is the ever-increasing interconnectedness of systems, which leads to cascading failures, and the fact that preventative maintenance is a dying art…History is replete with stories of failed backups — in fact, it’s fair to say nearly all modern disasters involve a Plan B gone bad.
His call to action is renewed embrace of the ‘dying art’ of preventative maintenance that embraces not just the possibility, but the growing likelihood of failures.