In pursuit of being wrong and thriving in uncertainty

In pursuit of being wrong and thriving in uncertainty

A primer* on better coating practices and a better life
* yes, indeed, pun intended

I’ve just finished reading a thought-provoking book called, “Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts” by Annie Duke.

The gist of the book is that playing world-class poker (Annie has won the World Series of Poker and is one of the most successful female poker players in history) is analogous to all decision-making. And, it so happens, it’s also a perfect analog to paint and coating practices.

There are two quotes from her engaging book that grabbed me by the collar and wouldn’t let go – the first being, “…there are exactly two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck.”

If you exchange the word “lives” with “coating project” you get the following:

“…there are exactly two things that determine how a coating project will turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck.”

Her second quote is exactly the premise upon which I built Chicago Corrosion Group – my vendor-neutral corrosion mitigation consulting firm. It’s a long quote, but read it a couple of times – it’s profound.

“What makes a decision great is not that it has a great outcome. A great decision is the result of a good process, and that process must include an attempt to accurately represent our own state of knowledge. That state of knowledge, in turn, is some variation of “I’m not sure.”

It’s the “I’m not sure” part I want to focus on – because it’s the most important part of any successful corrosion mitigation project, or for that matter, a life well-lived.

There are often a variety of self-interested players involved in failure analysis who are already high-strung and are in CYA-mode.

In fact, we are currently working on a failure at a local facility, the details of which don’t matter. Whether it’s blistering, peeling, discoloration, or whatever, the root cause is almost always the same (more in a moment) and the interpersonal and intercorporate dynamics are nearly always the same e.g. the contractor is blaming the coating company, the coating company is blaming the contractor, everyone is blaming the spec writer, owner is pissed-off, etc.

It’s not uncommon for me to be the object of varying degrees of disdain or outright contempt when working with clients, particularly when working on a failure analysis, and particularly in large meetings with all of the players involved in the failure. In these meetings, I don’t initially offer an opinion; I sit and listen, and ask questions – sometimes, what appear to be stupid questions. “Was it sunny out?” “How long was the hose run?” “Have you done it this way before?” “Do you have wet-film-thickness reports?” “Was there an induction time?”

While I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, I’m no slouch. I’m gathering information and fighting to avoid any preconceived notions. I’m trying to stay in the “I’m-not-sure” state of mind.

Certainty is a very dangerous mindset when making decisions as it closes off every other possibility.

Failures are all too typical, predictable and formulaic and, like virtually every failure I’ve been involved in or read about, easily avoided if and only if the people designing the system start with “I’m not sure.”

Why? And what does that mean?

I’ve worked on thousands of corrosion mitigation projects and most, but not all of which were solved by the application of paint or coating of some type. And the only time I have ever gotten into trouble is when I’ve made assumptions or been overconfident. For example, one time we were working for a large refinery and I took responsibility for allowing the contractor to leave a bunch of unsightly runs near the top of the straight wall of a floating roof tank. The runs were not going to hurt anything and were just cosmetic. I assumed, wrongly, that no one would care, and that the owner would be fine with leaving them, and to not further delay return to service by repairing them.

When the project was over, the asset owner took me to the top of the tank, which was now in operation and said something like:

“I understand that functionally, the runs don’t matter. However, every time a manager or anyone looks at that tank – and notices the run, they’re going to come to me and ask me to explain how we spent over a million dollars on tank lining– and there’s a huge run in the material.”

I was crestfallen and, of course, he was right. I had made a mistake born of hubris – and forgot to put myself in a mindset of, “I’m not sure.”

Every time we approach a project, we use “new eyes”, it’s as if it’s our first time. Dan Wiese, my partner in crime here at CCG, and I are constantly challenging each other with, “what are we missing?” “What don’t we know.” “Is there something better?” Because it’s what we don’t know that’s going to trip us up.

This sometimes frustrates our clients, who are understandably looking for answers, oftentimes quickly. However, it’s not our organic, internal knowledge that our clients are paying us for – rather it’s our vetting and evaluation process that sets CCG apart.

The Process Is Everything

Most of our work involves owners hiring us to provide “optimal corrosion mitigation solutions” rather than the industry standard of suitable (or worse).

They assume because I’ve been in the industry since paint was invented that I should just know the answer.

I may think I know the answer based on my experience, but that would be an assumption. Companies don’t PAY CCG for assumptions – they can go to contractors, engineers and coating companies and get assumptions for free.

Companies work with Dan and me because of our process. We are constantly seeking conflicting and divergent opinions. And because we are constantly checking in with what we’re missing – we provide exceptional value to our clients by providing “optimal” corrosion mitigation. Like the time we saved a European client nearly a million dollars by advising them not to line the interior of a concrete tank, after everyone else involved (contractor, coating company, engineering firm, inspection firm) advised them to line it.

Where other entities write specifications and force them down the food chain to the contractor (who typically doesn’t get nearly the amount of respect they deserve), CCG sends a “draft” specification to everyone for review, including the contractor, owner, inspector and back to the coating company for commentary.

My first career was as a daily newspaper reporter for the Whitter Daily News in California. One of our mantras back then was something like, “If your mom tells you she loves you, get a second source.”

I remember just last year we wrote a spec and sent it out to about a dozen individuals for review. One of the contractor’s superintendents accidentally copied me on an email to his boss, indicating the specification was “garbage.”

I emailed both of them saying that I was not remotely offended, and that I would deeply appreciate whatever feedback and criticism they could provide. I had/have no ego. I simply want to provide the best possible decision to our client.

As mentioned in Annie’s quote above, “A great decision is the result of a good process…” Unfortunately, the one commonality to all failures is the process in procurement – not materials. Yet, every technical article and case study I’ve ever read focuses on the material failure and not the process. Why? Because it’s easier focusing on the material and application than the process. It’s easy to take measurements, look at materials under a microscope, slice and dice coating samples, test blister fluids, perform SEM analysis and on, and on, and on.

What’s more complicated, nebulous and illusive, is finding the flaw in the process, and there’s always a flaw in the process.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at this quote from The Presidential Commission on The Space Shuttle Challenger Accident from 1986:

“The Commission concluded that there was a serious flaw in the decision-making process leading up to the launch of flight 51-L.” The material failure was an elastomeric solid rocket booster seal which failed because it was too cold for the material to remain pliable, and, therefore, it was unable to keep the combustion gases contained within the booster.

While most companies identify the root cause as identified somewhere between application, material selection or material production, I would argue that the root cause always lies in the process – and that the material or application failure is simply the natural manifestation of a flawed process.

Seeking Dissonance For Better Coating Practices & Better Life

In the Catholic church, in order for someone to be canonized they must be evaluated. So the church came up with a brilliant piece of the process by creating a “Devil’s Advocate”. It was a way in which the process could retain its integrity. It was a formulaic, critical piece of the process.

While this may be a bridge too far, my observations lead me to believe, that both in corrosion mitigation procurement, and life (politics, marriage, parenting, education, etc.) there has been a serious shift towards seeking consensus rather than truth. Individuals and organizations, it seems to me, have taken to surrounding themselves with like-minded folks and ideas – and eschew conflict.

The followers of my writing know that I crave conflict. I am an avid/obsessed student of martial arts. My typical week (since becoming an empty-nester) is one or two boxing classes, a Thai boxing class, two or three Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes and teaching combat Japanese Jujitsu once or twice a week.

Let’s stop shying away from conflict. Engage in challenging, yet respectful, conversations, look at alternative ideas, foster and seek out dissenting views and develop a mindset of “I’m not sure.” This will lead to better decision-making, better coating practices and a better life.

I’m not certain about a lot of things – but I’m certain about this.

  • Josh Tankersley
    Posted at 16:37h, 19 February

    Another great article – both in content and delivery. Thanks for sharing your insight into corrosion mitigation and life.

    – Josh Tankersley, Corrocoat USA

    • Warren Brand
      Posted at 17:13h, 20 February

      Hi John. Thank you for taking the time to write – and for your kind words.

  • Daniel Hendrick
    Posted at 18:42h, 19 February

    Warren very interesting and thought provoking read. Reminds me of what my father said many times “We don’t learn from our success we learn from our failures” Well done

    • Warren Brand
      Posted at 17:14h, 20 February

      Hi Dan. Thanks. Great quote from your dad.

  • Drew Hevle
    Posted at 16:55h, 20 February

    Interesting article, Warren, I think those quotes are powerful and could be applied to a variety of situations. Corrosion engineers are often (read almost always) dealing in incomplete knowledge, and assumptions and conflict avoidance only exacerbate the influence of the unknown.

    • Warren Brand
      Posted at 17:17h, 20 February

      Hi Drew. Thanks. I could have written 20 blogs on the topic. I find the decision-making process really interesting. The older I get the harder I have to work on not making assumptions – and keeping an open mind.