Volcanic root causes

As someone fascinated by the extremes of Mother Nature, it should come as no surprise that I can’t pass up a documentary or feature on volcanoes.

Generally speaking volcanoes can be categorised in three ways:

active – they have erupted at some point in the past 10,000 years and are expected to do so again

dormant – they haven’t erupted in the past 10,000 years but yet have the potential to do so

extinct – they are expected never to erupt again.

Categorising anything across a timeline going back to the last Ice Age seems pretty random however what’s more relevant in terms of volcanic risk is not the age of a volcano but its latent potential.

What is known for certain, with both active and dormant volcanoes is that, one day, they will explode into life. Communities in their vicinity carry this risk every day. Of course, what’s not known is when they will erupt and with how much ferocity.

It’s no surprise then that managing volcanic risk is tough as we can’t control nature. All you can reasonably do is mitigate the consequences, so close observation, tremor monitoring and evacuation plans are about as good as it gets.

Moving from my hobby to my day job, imagine this volcanic concept in the context of an organisation’s underlying risk.

All organisations carry risk that is both active and dormant. Unfortunately, unlike some volcanos, organisational risk will never become extinct!

Active organisational risk is very real and very obvious. It will have manifested itself in past incidents or near miss events. Hopefully, subsequent Investigations will have identified root causes allowing treatment plans with remedial actions. Job done? Well, not quite.

Dormant risk is less real and less obvious but poses just as much of a threat. At any given time, an organisation will have dormant or hidden root causes lying in wait ready to cause pain. Nobody knows when they will appear and what damage they will cause, and we can’t even predict the scale of damage they will inflict.

Not only are root causes unpredictable in terms of timing but also on their causation of impact and incident type. Put simply, root causes don’t come with a label!

Typecasting root causes as ‘safety’, ‘quality’ or ‘business’ can be a misnomer, as root causes lying dormant in your organisation can present in so many different forms of failure. But that’s a topic for another day.

As a professional investigator I am often asked to provide reactive support at the time of crisis – in effect, when the volcano has erupted!

Thinking proactively, how much more value would there be in chasing down your dormant root causes before they appear?

A key component of a COMET investigation and root cause analysis does exactly this and we call it Latent Factor identification. A COMET trained investigator is tuned into not only the causation of the incident under investigation, known as COMET Factors, but also to the value of uncovering Latent Factors.

Those failures or issues may have had no direct bearing on the particular incident being investigated but, if left untreated, may well become the COMET Factors of tomorrow. We regard them as COMET Factors ‘in the post’ that need to be intercepted!

We can’t cap mother nature’s volcanic risk but for everything else we have COMET.