When I was a youth more than 3 decades ago in an unreconstructed Scotland, I used to buy LPs. For those of you of a younger disposition, LP is an acronym meaning Long Playing. It was a 12” (30cm) thin plastic disc, which had a narrow undulating diminishing spiral groove which, when placed on a turntable and rotated, magically, came audially to life. It was long playing, as the music which was recorded on and emanated from it lasted for upto 30 minutes each side, compared to a Single, which was a miniature version of the same, and accommodated 1 song on each side.

One of the LPs I bought, in 1980 I believe, was ‘The Wall’ by a group called Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd were a rock group, formed in Cambridge in the late 1960s, which had risen to become one of the biggest bands of the 1970s. By 1980, they hadn’t released an album of new material for 5 years and anticipation was high. The album, lyrically autobiographically driven by bassist Roger Waters, was critically panned but commercially successful. One of the themes was the ‘sausage machine’ or ‘production line’ schooling which Waters had experienced. An education where memory and memorising were prized above all and success was measured by the passing of tests of memory.

As a result, we have, for generations, revered complex recall as sitting at the apogee of our civilisation. Which was fine when we only had inefficient and incomplete ways of quickly sourcing the information required to make informed decisions. But now we have Google. We all have more information at our fingertips than the most powerful person in the world (the American President) had a mere 3 decades ago. So, while knowledge and memory remain, and will remain, important, the skills we need to thrive in the 21st century have evolved.

Atul Gawande, American physician and author, demonstrates in his book, the Checklist, that by preparing and following simple lists, we can achieve significantly improved outcomes. Most of his examples come from medicine, where the use of checklists complex and critical interventions can and does save lives. However, there are useful parallels in our own industry. We are managing complex processes where most of the knowledge is available and where rigorously following a structured approach reduces the likelihood of an incident. And when we have an incident, it tends not to be a minor one. Think Piper Alpha, Deepwater Horizon, Texas City and Bhopal.

We are already doing some of the right things. Most of our operating companies employ a Permit to Work System, which is effectively a bespoke checklist for the rigorous execution of abnormal operations. But I think we need to do more. We need to find better ways of praising questions above answers, considered response over knowledge, bottom up instead of top down. The answer is the internet - now what was the question again?