Nov 8, 2008

130 Years of KM Forensics, Governance & Metrics: Part 1

130 Years of KM Forensics, Governance & Metrics - and 1000's of lives saved! In browsing Flickr photos, I came across an industrial archaeology plaque, commemorating the original Manchester site of British Engine Insurance, an organization committed to avoiding industrial explosions. And, ironic, in 1996, that this Manchester head office, itself was destroyed in an IRA bombing, and with no backup administration/IT systems elsewhere, the business was effectively destroyed.

November 12 2008 marks the 130th anniversary of the formation of the British Engine Insurance Ltd (now part Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group plc), originally known as the "The Engine and Boiler Insurance Company" - set up by RB Langridge. And from its origin in 1878, its Chief Engineer, M Langridge submitted an annual technical report (Knowledge Base ?) to the board (one of Arthur Shelley's elevator conversations ?) - covering "post mortems of dead equipment" ... aiming to improve safety, efficiency & equipment reliability. It all resonates with the thoughts of Professor James Reason - advocate of the mindful and High Performance Organization.

British Engine Insurance had been a pioneer in Knowledge Management, passionately committed in the 1870's, to preventing explosions killing dozens of people each year - helping to achieve cultural change in "boilermen" & asset owners/managers alike. They used visual inspection & the KM tools of the day ... maybe not all the highly technical NDE (NonDestructive Engineering/Inspection - similar to medical techniques of ultrasound, X-ray, CT Scan) instruments nor the databases, document management systems, emails, internet, communities of practice, wikis, blogs, Web 2.0 etc ... but they willingly & enthusiastically captured knowledge - then shared it very widely .. being exploited for decades .... as an embryonic beginning of the governance engineering culture in much of today's power industry.

Professionally, my great passions are forensic engineering aka failure analysis, knowledge, quality & safety management - avoiding reinventing the wheel .... in mid 1981... I was a young metallurgist and permitted to join the Failure Analysis Metallurgical team, then led passionately by David Barnett (now AINDT CEO - An immigrant from the UK, Dave has now served Australian industry for 45 years). Dave has always been a devout follower of the "British Engine Insurance" Technical Reports. In our field, these Technical Reports had broken new ground in establishing a culture of knowledge capture, management & sharing - way back in 1879. Although I was initially perplexed back in 1981, as to how an insurance company could possibly do failure investigations ... I learnt.

Problems had emerged with boilers exploding as early as 1815, and even in the 1850's, a few engineers began to recognise it was essential to do regular inspection of equipment to prevent catastrophic, & often fatal, explosions. RB Langridge was a key figure in the Manchester Steam Users Association, the first boiler inspection company- set up in 1854 ...he had strong views on regular equipment inspection programmes - and he was prepared to stand by them - he even resigned in 1859 when his vision of linking insurance cover to regular condition monitoring inspections was not accepted.

In 1878 RB Langridge argued to his employers, The Steam Boiler Assurance Company, that steam engines should be brought into the inspection scheme. He firmly believed that "accidents resulting from the disruption of the very large flywheels of the engines of the day could be as violent and explosive as boiler explosions and could similarly be reduced by routine inspection." So, his views falling on deaf ears, he resigned again, and formed the "The Engine and Boiler Insurance CO. Ltd"... and in 1932 the firm merged with the old MSUA - enlarging British Engine Insurance Ltd. In the meantime all sorts of fanciful theories for causes of the explosions began to flourish, one being "the spheroidisation of water".

Note - in the 1860-70's, up to 60 people pa would be killed in boiler explosions in the UK, with 31 explosions in 1880. In 1879, M Langridge classified the causes of the breakdown of engines (& the root causes seem remarkably unchanged !) in the first annual technical report to the Board (Elevator conversation & Knowledge Base ? ) as follows ......
- 49% - due to accidental causes - eg some twine was dropped into the casing
- 14% - due to negligence of attendants eg brass had worn through - but it hadn't been checked for a very long time
- 23% - due to old defects, flaws and wear - many cases of pre-existing cracks preceding final fracture were cited
- 14% - due to weakness and faulty construction - eg incorrect fitting

Further he identified what would be known decades later as fatigue & the role of residual stress in fracture ..."it should be remembered that under variable strains of a certain intensity, especially when alternately tensile and compressive, the strength of metals gradually decreases, until ultimately rupture takes place with a comparatively light load; and also, that iron or steel, when in a high state of strain, will give way under a slight jar which would not otherwise affect it." I have always believed that it takes special traits to make good inspectors - attention to detail, crawl around in arduous conditions & to get it all documented in a meaningful way. These factors remain crucial in engineering to this day, eg planes, oil rigs, gas pipelines.

Effective KM was to be a crucial component in the changes necessary to stop the industry killing its own

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(Reference - British Engine Technical Report 1978 Volume XIII - 1878-1978 100Years of Service to Industry.)

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