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A colleague was telling me about her recent rise in work commitments. She was saying that, even though she is normally a well organized person, the ability to manage her schedule over the next few weeks would be much more difficult than normal, but at the same time it was much more critical than normal. Failure to properly manage her schedule will mean MANY projects and studies will be done at the last minute.

Every person is different in the way they deal with the pressure of deadlines. For example, when I have a very tight deadline for ONE task, I tend to get extremely focused and can work exclusively on that one task. My record of ONE task under extreme deadline pressure is not bad. When I have MANY tasks under extreme deadline pressure, I have trouble focusing on only one at a time, and I am sure my work suffers. I have therefore learned the importance of planning. For me, the need to ensure all required actions have enough time to be done well is almost as important as the need to avoid multiple extreme deadlines. Sometimes when planning, we see one extreme deadline is unavoidable, so I plan and do my work accordingly.

Some tasks are more suited to extreme deadline pressure. One that is not well suited at all to extreme deadline pressure is risk assessment. Risk assessments do need some schedule flexibility, or there is a chance the risk assessment will be a hazard. Consider some of the normal consequences of risk assessment to extreme deadline pressure …

+ The “80/20” principle does not apply. The 80/20 principle is getting 80% of the benefit for 20% of the effort. Many people try to work at this point, and are quite successful. However, when doing a risk assessment, we do not want to find 80% of the potential problems, we want to find 99.99% of the potential problems. And often the big problems are not easy to find. I remember one HAZOP where the team found a problem that could happen once every 8-10 years during an obscure maintenance activity. Failure to detect this problem would have resulted in people and the environment being exposed to significant quantities of mercury. There is no way the team could have found this under extreme deadline pressure, and the facilitator would have kept the study moving (the need of the facilitator to keep the study moving and giving the team enough time to analyse is a great balancing skill, and is a subject for another discussion). It is quite clear we cannot risk assess in a hurry.

+ Some tasks can be performed when we are tired. Risk assessment is not one of them. Risk assessment requires a great deal of mental effort. Risk assessing when mentally tired means we cannot comprehend as well the detailed ramifications of problems – they just become too hard. This means the team will probably either miss problems, or spend too much time trying to understand them that they create deadline pressure for later in the assessment. Or maybe both.

+ When we fall behind in a risk assessment, we cannot catch up. If we catch up, it means we are either working too quickly, or we are working too long and becoming tired. In either case, it is extremely likely that problems will be missed. Working into the night in a risk assessment will probably only create a fatigue problem, resulting in missed problems.

The inspiration for this article comes from a customer. Due to conflicts of interest, I was not able to facilitate his risk assessment, but I must admire how he is managing the assessments.

Due to lack of project progress in key areas (vendor issues) he had been forced to delay the risk assessment twice. I am sure he is under deadline pressure to complete the project, but he is resisting the urge to compromise safety. I admire him for that.