Delivering Value to the Process Industries

A Parable from Pop Culture: The Arrogance of the Jedi

By Michael A Taube on 27 November 17

Paris, France – April 28, 2016: Portrait of Jedi Master Yoda toy model with green lightsaber on window display in Paris. Yoda is a fictional character in the Legend Star Wars Film franchise created by director George Lucas

Did you ever hear the tragedy of Master Yoda the Wise?  It’s not a story the Jedi would tell you – because they were ruined by their own arrogance!  

The Star Wars movies have lodged themselves into pop culture history.  Over time, these movies have started to see re-evaluation: People are looking past their surface-level stories and ground-breaking special effects and are seeing deeper analogies buried within a larger story.  Perhaps the most compelling of these analogies – one that is most relevant to the Hydrocarbon Processing Industry (HPI) – is the complete failure of the Jedi to foresee their oncoming demise.  

The View from an Ivory Tower

For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and order throughout the galaxy.  Yet, on the eve of a galactic civil war, they had become complacent and overconfident: Assured of their superiority and insight – their ability to foresee the future – they sat comfortably in their Temple; from where, they believed, they could see all activities across the galaxy.  

When Obi-Wan Kenobi lamented that his Apprentice, Anakin Skywalker, had become increasingly arrogant due to his high levels of power, Yoda replied: “Yes, yes: A flaw more and more common among Jedi.  Too sure of themselves they are; even the older, more experienced ones!” [Emphasis added.]  Another tell-tale sign of hubris was revealed when Obi Wan was investigating the assassination attempt of a key political figure: Unable to locate a star system in the Jedi Archive Library, he inquires with the Librarian and she states, “If an item does not appear in our records, [then] it doesn’t exist!”  

Ignoring the growing threats of galactic war, the unforeseen return of their long-time, and believed to be long extinct, enemy – the Sith – and, finally, due to their own hubris, the inability to comprehend who was orchestrating the entire situation (a Sith Lord) or foresee the inevitable outcome, they sealed their fate: Blinded from seeing how their actions played into their enemy’s plans, the increasingly poor decisions by the Jedi Council, ignoring what others (who were not Jedi’s) could see developing, is what assured the destruction of the Jedi Order as well as the end of the Galactic Republic!  

A Crisis of Overconfidence, Hubris and Inexperience

Could HPI Management be facing a similar situation: Overconfident in their assessment of the global business environment and how to design, operate and maintain their plants, relying upon dogmatic and questionable policies, self-assured in their business acumen based on education rather than experience, unable to foresee the long-term outcomes of their decisions, and, all the while, naively believing themselves to be “above” the danger?  

There are more than a few parallels here to the situation facing HPI Management and it does not bode well for them or the Industry they serve.  Among the many current issues affecting the HPI:

  • Reduced manpower – the inexorable outcome of their own policies and decisions – representing the loss of centuries of combined design and operating experience, limiting their ability to respond agilely to, as well as having a historical context and basis from which to compare, rapidly changing opportunities and circumstances.  
  • A significant experience gap between the most experienced members of their workforce, including managers and supervisors, and the younger newcomers – another result of “business decisions” to cut costs by not hiring, training and developing staff (including future supervisors and managers) during the down cycles.  
  • Growing numbers of stress points within their own organizations, particularly within the Engineering, Operations and Maintenance areas – another long-term outcome of management policies – that will easily turn into large cracks with very little additional pressure.  
  • A sense of superiority and an overreliance on “business education” – which emphasizes the use of “systems” – versus hard-earned field experience with the design, operations and maintenance of the facilities upon which their business depends.  
  • A growing need to backfill vacancies, resulting from the loss of highly experienced managers, by promoting those younger newcomers beyond what their experience is capable of handling: Recalling the adage that 20+ years of progressive field experience is much different than 2+ years of experience 10 times!  
  • Young and inexperienced management which has become hidebound (due to their limited experience), repeating worn-out mantras like “do more, with less” (and multiple variations, thereof) without considering the deleterious effects such policies have had (and will continue to have) on the business’s sustainability and growth.  
  • “Top-heavy” organizations, with stripped-down field organizations, unable to effectively deal with the multitude of acute as well as chronic issues that hinder their operating facilities, which are slow to react to rapidly shifting market conditions due to internal bureaucracy and organizational inertia.  

Much of this “toxic brew” boils down to issues with the dogmatic and formulaic MBA-style “cookie-cutter” or “one size fits all” approach to managing any industry: deferring maintenance; replacing older experienced talent with “outsourcing”; and eliminating training & development budgets for the younger staff (the people-equivalent of deferred maintenance).  Then, before the full effect of their policies can manifest, they congratulate themselves on their superior business acumen in the form of “performance bonuses”, thus reinforcing the “mantra” for the next management team.  

Even where the Star Wars analogy breaks down, the fundamental parallel still remains: HPI Management has become too certain of itself and shows too many signs of its inability to proactively respond to the outcomes of earlier decisions and to ever-evolving conditions.  

When the End Comes

As mentioned in the article on the Great Galveston Hurricane, there are plenty of reasons to think there is a storm just over the horizon.  Various observers can see it coming and have been issuing warnings to the Industry and Management, yet HPI Management is failing to fully recognize the situation, much less take responsibility for their (or their predecessor’s) earlier decisions, and take appropriate steps to avoid the coming storm, even in the wake of disasters like the Deepwater Horizon, the Texas City Refinery and other recent incidents.  

WHEN the flashpoint occurs, it will be a disaster so large in scale that it creates a true “civil war” within and for the HPI as well as the public.  It is hard to see how things will go well for HPI Management and the Industry.  Will they, like the Jedi, be ruined by their own arrogance?

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