Archive for the ‘Execution Risk’ category

During a Crisis – A Lesson from Fire Fighters

December 10, 2012


The fire cycle: “The action-cycle of a fire from birth to death follows a certain pattern.  The fire itself may vary in proportion from insignificance to conflagration, but regardless of its proportions, origin, propagation or rate of progression, the cycle or pattern of controlling it includes these phases:

1. the period between discovery and the transmittal of the alarm or alerting of the fire forces;

2. the period between receipt of alarm by the fire service and arrival of firemen at the scene of the fire; and, finally,

3. the period between arrival on the fire ground and final extinguishment of the fire itself.

It is important to fire fighting to make sure that the right things happen during each phase and that each step takes as little time as possible.  For the first phase, that means having fire detection equipment in place and working properly that produces a signal that will be noticed and conveyed to the fire forces.  In the second phase, the fire fighters need to be organized to respond appropriately to the alarm.  And the third phase includes the process of diagnosing the situation and taking the necessary steps to put out the fire.

That is a good process model for risk managers to contemplate.  Ask yourself and your staff:

  1. This is about the attitude and preparedness of company staff to accept that there may be a problem.  How long will it be before we know when an actual crisis hits the company?  How do our alarms work?  Are they all in functioning order?  Or will those closest to the problems delay notifying you of a potential problem?  Sometimes with fires and company crises, an alarm sounds and it is immediately turned off.  The presumption is that everything is normal and the alarm must be malfunctioning.  Or perhaps that the alarm is correct, but that it it calibrated to be too sensitive and there is not a significant problem.  As risk manager, you should urge everyone to err on the side of reporting every possible situation.  Better to have some extra responses than to have events, like fires, rage completely out of control before calling for help.
  2.  This is about the preparedness of risk management staff to begin to respond to a crisis.  One problem that many risk management programs face is that their main task seems to be measuring and reporting risk positions.  If that is what people believe is their primary function, then the risk management function will not attract any action oriented people.  If that is the case in your firm, then you as risk manager need to determine who are the best people to recruit as responders and build a rapport with them in advance of the next crisis so that when it happens, you can mobilize their help.  If the risk staff is all people who excel at measuring, then you also need to define their roles in an emergency – and have them practice those roles.   No matter what, you do not want to find out who will freeze in a crisis during the first major crisis of your tenure.  And freezing (rather than panic) is by far the most common reaction.  You need to find those few people whose reaction to a crisis is to go into a totally focuses active survival mode.
  3. This is about being able to properly diagnose a crisis and to execute the needed actions.  Fire Fighters need to determine the source of the blaze, wind conditions, evacuation status and many other things to make their plan for fighting the fire.  They usually need to form that plan quickly, mobilize and execute the plan effectively, making both the planned actions and the unplanned modifications happen as well as can be done.  Risk managers need to perform similar steps.  They need to understand the source of the problem, the conditions around the problem that are outside of the firm and the continuing involvement of company employees, customers and others.  While risk managers usually do not have to form their plan in minutes as fire fighters must, they do have to do so quickly.  Especially when there are reputational issues involved, swift and sure initial actions can make the world of difference.  And execution is key.  Getting this right means that the risk manager needs to know in advance of a crisis, what sorts of actions can be taken in a crisis and that the company staff has the ability to execute.  There is no sense planning to take actions that require the physical prowess  of Navy Seals if your staff are a bunch of ordinary office workers.  And recognizing the limitations of the rest of the world is important also.  If your crisis effects many others, they may not be able to provide the help from outside that you may have planned on.  If the crisis is unique to you, you need to recognize that some will question getting involved in something that they do not understand but that may create large risks for their organizations.


Rounding Up to Reduce Drift into Failure and Maintain Risk Karma

July 31, 2012

So what to do about Drift into Failure?

Think of DIF in simple math terms.  At every turn in the calculation, you are rounding down or truncating the values that you calculate.  With that process, your result will always be low.  Not always noticeably low but with a bias to be below the value that you would have calculated with carrying forward the value with all of the decimal points.

With a Risk Management or Safety system, it is the same thing.  If checking ten times will give a .9999 guaranty of safety, then nine times should be good enough.  If lubricating weekly produces no failures, how about lubricating every 9 days.  And so on.  If a hedge that is 98% effective works out fine most days, how about a hedge that is 96% effective.  A $5 million retention works, why not move it to $5.5 million.

In every case, the company rounds down.

So the practice that is needed to reduce DIF is to occasionally round up.  One year, try rounding up on half the risk systems.  Make the standards just a tiny bit tighter a few times.  Balance things that way.  Think of your firm as accumulating bad karma by allowing the shortcuts, the rounding down on the risk management and safety systems.  Protect the karma, by going the other way in the same sort of imperceptible small steps that are the evidence of the DIF.

Stop Drifting.   Join the Fight Against Bad Risk Karma Today.

The Risk of Paying too much Attention to your Experience

July 30, 2012

The Drift into Failure idea from the Safety Engineers is quite valuable.

One way that DIF occurs is when an organization listens too well to the feedback that they get from their safety system.

That is right, too much attention.  In the case of a remote risk, the feedback that you will get most days, most weeks, most months is NOTHING HAPPENS.

That is the feedback you are likely to get if you have a good loss prevention system or if you have none.

This ties to the DIF idea because organizations are always under pressure to do more with less.  To streamline and reduce costs.

So what happens?  In Safety and Risk Management, someone studies the risks of a situations and designs a risk mitigation system that reduces the frequency or severity of problem situations to an acceptable level.

Then, at some future time, the company management looks to reduce costs and/or staff.  This particular risk mitigation system looks like a prime candidate.  The company is spending time and money and there has never been a problem.  Doubtless, the same “nothing” could be achieved with less.  So the budget is cut, a position is elimated and they get by with less mitigation.

Then time pass and they collect the feedback, the experience with the reduced risk mitigation process.  And the experience tells them that they still have no problems.  The budget cutters are vindicated.  Things seem to be just fine with a less costly program.

If the risk here is highly remote, then this process might happen several times.

Which may eventually result in a very bad situation if the remote adverse event finally happens.  The company will be inadequately unprepared.  And no one made a clear decision to dilute the defense to an ineffective level.  They just kept making small decisions and eventually they drifted into failure.

And each step was validated by their experience.

During the Crisis

September 11, 2011

There are three Phases to Risk Management,

  • Preparation,
  • Crisis Management and
  • Picking up the pieces

During the Crisis, the most important thing is that you are able to assess the situation, choose the appropriate action and finally and most importantly ACT.

Many people are prone to freeze during a crisis.  They go into a daze because some main steady thing in their life is no longer there and working.

On the anniversary of 911, it is interesting to notice that an article A Survival Guide to Catastrophe from 2008 is the most popular article today at

It tells the story of how several people escaped several famous catastrophes.  In each case, some of the people who died in those situations were frozen.

The human brain goes through three stages during a crisis: disbelief, deliberation and action.  The frozen people have stuck on the disbelief or deliberation stages.

That is where the Preparation phase is important.  With proper preparation, people can be taught to quickly identify the reality of the crisis and to know in advance their best options.  The purpose of the preparation is then to shorten the time to get to the third stage.  ACTION.  And to make sure that when you get there, you take the right action.

During the World Trade Center crisis, some people did act quickly, and climbed the stairs right up to the roof.  Others made the right choice and went down the stairs.

This Crisis Management thinking does not just refer to physical crises.  Financial firms are faced with financial crises.  In those situations, managers of the firm go through the exact same stages:  disbelief, deliberation and action.  They can get stuck in either of the first two stages until it is too late.  They can also choose the wrong action.

Much of risk management literature seems to be about the risk management things that are needed during the moderately risky, normal times.  But risk management is also needed in the midst of the crisis.  The risk mitigation tactics that work best in moderately risky, normal times may not even be available in a crisis.  There needs to be preparation for a possible crisis so that managers will promptly identify the crisis and know in advance the types of options that they may have and also know how to go about choosing the best options.

Firms that provide property insurance to disaster prone areas have learned that it is much more than good customer service to have claims people on the ground to start writing checks as soon as possible after the disaster.  Firms that trade in financial markets have learned, if they did not know already, that trading is not always continuous.

Whatever your firm does, the risk manager should be developing and training managers about crisis plans.

Decision Fatigue and Crisis Risk Management

August 31, 2011

In a recent New York TImes Magazine article, the problem of decision making fatigue is described.  The article says that people will generally tire of making decisions.  It sites studies of judges rulings on parole hearings.  Parolees who have the bad luck to have their case heard later in the day have much less chance of success was one example cited.

Another interesting aspect of decision fatigue was that once fatigued of decisions, people tended to narrow their decision making criteria.  Tired decision makers would eventually get down to a single factor driving their decisions.

The idea given of how to avoid decision fatigue is generally to avoid making too many decisions.

There are interesting implications for risk management.  RISKVIEWS has said many times that risk management means that sometimes the company will do something different then before they had risk management.  But since the company is not doing something different all of the time, each different situation requires a decision.  But all decisions are not of the same economic impact.

So a strategy for getting it right – or at least avoiding decision fatigue for the most important decisions is to make sure that a fresh decision maker is involved in the decisions of higher importance.

This idea may not mean making any change in the procedures of many companies.  It is not uncommon for decisions that involve larger amounts of money to require approval by a more senior person than the person who makes the lesser decisions.  It appears that is a good idea from a decision fatigue point of view.  Firms who seek to empower their employees by avoiding that sort of system may be playing russian roulette with their most important risk management decisions.

In a crisis, many decisions are needed in a short time.  That is perhaps one way of defining a crisis.  Things must be done differently.  The likelihood of decision fatigue in a crisis seems to be immense.

A solution to this is to reduce the number of decisions.  This can be accomplished by anticipating the decisions that may be needed and making the most likely decisions in advance.  It may well be that an advance decision made with an approximation of the situation may be better than a fatigued decision.  There still remains the decision of whether the advance decision is still applicable.  But if done right, the stress of decisions can be greatly reduced.

In addition, the narrowing of decision making criteria for fatigued decision makers is an interesting finding.  Many management information people report that they need to refine the information that they provide to single indicators, in some cases to red light/green light on/off indicators.

This seems to be clear indication of decision fatigue of senior managers.  While MI professionals will not usually be empowered to have an opinion on this, it seems that what is in order is for the top managers to make fewer decisions until they get to the point where they are no longer too fatigued to recognize the actual complexity of the decisions that they are making.

Momentum Risk

January 31, 2011

How many times have you heard this

If it isn’t broken don’t fix it.

As a risk manager, momentum risk is one of the most difficult risk to overcome.  (I wonder how many times on these posts I have claimed this?)

But this is the aspect of the Horizon disaster that led to millions and millions of barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf.  Before that the oil companies claimed that there had never been a failure of an oil rig in the Gulf.  So that was the Momentum assumption.  It had never failed so it never would fail.

Standing against that is the seemly endlessly negative point of view of the risk manager:

If anything can go wrong, it will.

Murphy‘s Law is usually taken as the ultimate statement of negative pessimism.  But instead you the risk manager need to use Murphy’s law as he did.  As a mantra to keep repeating to yourself as you look for ways to stress test a system.

Looking to engineering (Murphy was an engineer you know) for some thinking about stress to failure, we find this post:

When a component is subject to increasing loads it eventually fails.   It is comparatively easy to determine the point of failure of a component subject to a single tensile force. The strength data on the material identifies this strength.   However when the material is subject to a number of loads in different directions some of which are tensile and some of which are shear, then the determination of the point of failure is more complicated…

Some of your stress to failure tests will have to be tensile, some compressive, some shear, in different directions and in different combinations.  You should do this sort of testing to know the weakest points of your system.

But there is no guarantee that the system will fail at the weakest points either.  In fact, you may put in place methods to reduce stresses to those weakest points.  Remember that now elevates other points to be the new stresses.

And do not let Momentum thinking define your approach to likelihood of these stresses.  In physical systems, the engineer knows how the system is supposed to be used and can plan for the stresses of those uses.  But in many cases, the systems designed and tested by engineers are not used in the conditions planned for or even for the exact uses that the engineer anticipated.

Sound familiar?

Human systems are not so fixed as physical systems.  Humans react to the system that they are experiencing and adjust their actions according to the feedback that they are receiving from the system.  So human systems will almost always change as they are used.

Human systems will almost always change as they are used.

That is what makes it so much more difficult to be a risk manager for a financial firm than for a firm that deals mainly with physical risks.  As noted above the humans that interface with the physical risks system do change and adapt, but there are usually a larger portion of possibilities that are fixed by the constraints of the physical systems.

With financial risks, the idea of adapting and using a type of transaction or financial structure for alternate purposes has become the occupation of a large number of folks who command a large amount of resources.

So if, for example, you are using a particular type of derivative to accomplish a fairly straightforward risk management purpose, it is quite possible that the market for that instrument will suddenly be taken over by folks with lots and lots of money, fast computers and turnover averages in the thousands per week.  Their entry into a market will change pricing and the speed of changes in pricing and then one day, suddenly, they will decide, perhaps little by little, but possibly all at once, to abandon that trade and the market will snap to being something different still.

The same sort of thing happens in insurance, but at a different speed.  Lawyers are always out there looking to “perfect” an argument to create a new class of claimants against different businesses and their insurers. THis results in a sudden jump in claims costs.

Interestingly, the strategies for those two examples might be the exact opposite.  It might be best to move on from the market that is suddenly overtaken by high speed hedge fund traders.  But the only way to recover extra losses from a newly discovered and “perfected” cause of tort is to stay with the coverage.

But in all cases, the risk manager is faced with the problem of overcoming Momentum Risk.  Convincing others that something that is not broken needs attention and possibly even fixing.

It’s All Relative

November 7, 2010

Another way to differentiate risks and loss situations is to distinguish between systematic losses and losses where your firm ends up in the bottom quartile of worst losses.

You can get to that by way of having a higher concentration of a risk exposure than your peers.  Or else you can lose more in proportion to your exposure than your peers.

The reason it can be important to distinguish these situations is that there is some forgiveness from the market, from your customers and from your distributors if you lose money when everyone else is losing it.  But there is little sympathy for the firm that manages to lose much more than everyone else.

And worst of all is to lose money when no one else is losing it.

So perhaps you might want to go through each of your largest risk exposures and imagine how either of these three scenarios might hit you.

  • One company had a loss of 50% of capital during the credit crunch of the early 1990’s.  Their largest credit exposure was over 50% of capital and it went south.  Average recoveries were 60% to 80% in those days, but this default had a 10% recovery.  That 60% to 80% was an average, not a guaranteed recovery amount.  Most companies lost less than 5% of capital in that year.
  • Another company lost well over 25% of capital during the dot com bust.  They had concentrated in variable annuities.  No fancy guarantees, just guaranteed death benefits.  But their clientele was several years older than their average competitors.  And the difference in mortality rate was enough that they had losses that were much larger than their competitors, who were also not so concentrated in variable annuities.
  • Explaining their claims for Hurricane Katrina that were about 50% higher as a percent of their expected total claims, one insurer found that they had failed to reinsure a large commercial customer whose total loss from the hurricane made up almost 75% of the excess.  Had they followed their own retention rules on that one case, that excess would have been reduced by half.

So go over your risks.  Create scenarios for each major risk category that might send your losses far over the rest of the pack.  Then look for what needs to be done to prevent those extraordinary losses.

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