Sun Tzu and the Art of the Disaster

Sun Tzu

2,500 years ago in China, Sun Tzu wrote a book called The Art of War, which is quoted endlessly by people trying to sound smarter than the next guy.  So I read it to find out the secret wisdom of the ages.  It isn’t a very big book, and it talks about exactly the sort of thing you would expect to find in an ancient treatise on how to conduct war:  Strategy, tactics, the importance of terrain, etc.

The reason it is so often quoted, however, is because it is an exceedingly humane discussion, as if we gave the task of war to a think-tank of pacifists and said “If you absolutely had to go to war, how would you do it?”  Sun Tzu’s most famous lesson is that the most glorious victory is the battle avoided altogether.

Which brings us to disasters in the fuel business.  We’ve learned a lot over the years in how to prepare for a disaster.  An untrained regiment of soldiers can be “prepared” by simply bracing for the impact of battle, a sort of psychological preparedness, and many companies and even homeowners take this approach to safety.  “If something bad happens, we stand ready to spring into action and mop up the mess.”

But rather than using the shirt off your back to soak up the spilled fuel, why not have a dedicated spill response kit on each and every vehicle?  This requires a bit of foresight and wisdom, not to mention a significant expense, but we’re getting closer to The Art of the Disaster.

Readers of the local papers learned there was a diesel fuel spill at our Bantam storage facility on January 3rd.  We were not responsible for the spill, as it was caused by the trucking company who delivers the fuel from New Haven.  The good news is that all the spilled fuel was perfectly captured in our emergency containment system.

Because of a huge capital investment we made a few years ago, we didn’t have to “mop up” at all.  The carefully engineered unloading area was sloped to a drain that conveyed any spilled fuel to a concrete containment area.  Because of that foresight, we didn’t have to clean up the Bantam River, which runs very close by our facility.  This was truly the battle avoided altogether.  The Art of the Disaster.

The most glorious victory of all came this week, as we performed a rather uninteresting task at a customer’s home in Litchfield:  We replaced their basement oil tank, which had not leaked or spilled a single drop.  So why did we replace it?

During a routine, annual Efficiency Tune-Up last month, we used portable ultrasound technology to test the thickness of the steel at the bottom of their tank.  The results told us the steel was very thin from many years of corrosion, and we knew it wouldn’t last much longer, perhaps a few months, or even a year.  But when it let go, it would be a disaster.  The customer was thrilled to know we could avoid the disaster, and we were thrilled to avoid “mopping up” in the middle of the night.

The battle avoided.  The Art of the Disaster.

Fuel companies are not all created equal.  We make a significant commitment to safe equipment, facilities, vehicles and more importantly, safe people, and safe procedures.  Because we know that in the long run customers stick with us when we protect their homes, the environment, other drivers, and much more.  I think Sun Tzu would approve.

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February 2013
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