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BP’s Big Spill: Lesson for your new products?

What new product lessons can we learn from BP's oil spillYesterday I heard BP’s COO, Doug Suttles, admit that it could take months to get the Deepwater Horizon disaster under control. The journalist interviewing him jumped on that by asking why BP didn’t have a back-up plan in place before the spill. Of course, there’s a political and legal tsunami coming for BP, so Suttles smartly ignored the question and stayed on his talking points about the extraordinary efforts BP is taking, etc., etc.

Too bad – because it was a really good question. After all, this is far from the first time an undersea drilling rig has had a major leak. In fact, the oil recovery domes that BP is about to deploy are similar in design to those used after rigs were destroyed during Katrina and other recent gulf hurricanes. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready and waiting to go after the accident, but were only constructed afterward.

There’s a valuable lesson here for anyone involved in new product innovation. Okay, your new products might not have the potential for becoming ecological disasters on the scale of Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, or BP’s current disaster. But don’t you still owe it to your customers and your stakeholders to have a back-up plan and eliminate the risks that you can foresee? To do that, here are several question that you should consider answering as part of your new product development checklist:

  1. What is the potential for a harmful failure of your product?
  2. What are the potential unintended effects or side-effects of your product?
  3. What are the potential misuses of your product?
  4. What back-up plans should be in place in case of a failure?

There are several tools available to help you in this effort. Many engineers are trained in analysis using Failure Mode & Effect Analysis (FMEA). This facilitated process leads you through a serious of “what-if’s” while evaluating the potential likelihood and severity of a failure and developing solutions to avoid them. The Theory of Constraints (TOC) thinking processes also offer some useful cause and effect tools such as the future reality tree planning tool. It includes includes negative branch reservations where undesirable effects (UDE’s) are eliminated by steps that trim the negative branches.

One caution in using these techniques – they are only as good as the quality of the analysis done. The inventors themselves might be too close to the product to see potential shortcomings, so it’s a good idea to include outside facilitation and expert peer review in the process.

The Simple Bottom Line – Taking these proactive steps to evaluate potential product failures might not be fun, but it can help ensure that your new product doesn’t become the next breaking news story – except maybe because it’s selling so well.

So tell us what you think and when you’ve seen this kind of upfront planning pay off.

Photo Credit - Igor Golubenkov: waterfowl after a 2006 Black Sea spill