It is proper for engineers to assess risk in the undertaking of any project, and to monitor the development and implementation of plans to mitigate the identified risks, to raise the probability of success in the endeavor. A standard approach to measuring risk is to evaluate the probability of the risk occurence, and the magnitude of the consequence on equal scales (for example, a scale of 1-5). The overall risk is then computed as the product of the probability score and the consequence score. Depending on the magnitude of the effort, and the nature of the identified risk, it may be appropriate for some risks to be accepted as present which are either impossible to mitigate, or for which mitigations may be prohibitively expensive or time-consuming to implement. (In this latter case, attempting to resolve the risk will create a new risk to the project in the form of a cost or schedule problem).
However, as discussed in a previous post, it is evident that there is an increasing resistance to the acceptance of risk across a large segment of industry. What is the underlying source of this increase in risk adversion?
One possibility is that risk adversion is driven by consideration of economic consequences. In a highly competitive market, the profit margin is steadily reduced for established products. Any error in the design or manufacture of a product will result in an increased cost, and will threaten the profitability of the manufacturer. Hence, it can be argued, any risk of error must be taken as a risk to profitability, and hence to the very survival of the firm. Although I can agree that this is a valid concern for risks with extraordinarily high consequences, such as risks which may result in liability, or those which could stop production entirely, I also perceive that the level of acceptable risk has been lowered much more dramatically than these increases in consequence can explain.
Considering the matter in more depth, I am lead to the conclusion that although the consequences of risks may be evaluated more highly in markets with narrow profit margins, it is in the evaluation of the risk probability that a greater overall increase has occured. What I have seen personally is a greater concern over whether engineers have an accurate understanding of the likelihood of a problem occuring. Particularly when an innovative approach to a process is suggested, with the goal of increasing profitability, there is a heightened concern over whether this innovation will fail. The level of proof required has risen dramatically. Although this is championed at times by managers as a sign of “maturity”, or as an approach more scientific than the former practice, I suspect what is really occuring is far different.
Where does the sense of greater probability of failure come from? It is based in the emotion of fear. And the source of the fear is very often stated bluntly – “how can we be certain? …we don’t know what might happen … you never know…”. The fear has an epistemological source. The quest for engineering certainty is found to be impossible to satisfy. It cannot be satisfied by any other means than through the application of reason, and reason has come to be doubted as a source of truth.