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Compliance is culture

Jonathan Brun

Compliance is fundamentally a systems problem that sits on top of a culture problem. In this 1986 interview with Richard Feynman, the famed Nobel physicist explains what led to Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. To explain the dysfunction at NASA, he uses the powerful analogy of a child who runs into the street and is reprimanded by his mother. The child responds, “but nothing happened!”. The child continues to run into the street with no consequences until, unsurprisingly, something bad happens. The challenge compliance officials face is, how to educate the child?

Feynman struggles with this question. If even he cannot come to a clear conclusion, then we must recognize that instilling a culture of quality, safety, and compliance is a challenging task for any organization. Feynman does not explain what a solution may be, but he does outline that a driver of disasters is hubris.

Ultimately, organizations that cut corners always get caught. The question is just when, where and how much does it cost? Some disasters completely destroy an organization, while others can be transformational and others can be continuously ignored. Three examples of these diverging paths include:

  1. MMA Rail went bankrupt after killing 47 people in Lac-Megantic.
  2. After the Valdez spill, Exxon implemented robust compliance programs and better management practices and since then has had few disasters
  3. Despite commitments to “improve safety”, another fatality occurred at Suncor Oil and the CEO resigned.

Organizations can change, but it requires time, courage, and investment. To build and maintain a strong compliance program, it needs to be simple, it needs to work, and its rewards need to be made visible within the organization. Organizations must congratulate themselves for their technical successes but also their often-invisible organizational successes. If NASA had taken the time to understand why the Apollo program worked relatively well (from a safety perspective), then perhaps the Challenger and Columbia shuttle explosions would never have occurred.

There is no magic solution to compliance, but Nimonik believes in starting simple and building upwards. If you believe your organization is ready to implement a basic compliance program for applicable industry standards, regulations and other documents, contact us at info@nimonik.com today.