Facilitating complex decisions rapidly

The problem: Our public sector client had received advice, through an external review, that a critical piece of hazardous storage infrastructure was no longer safe to use. The recommendation was due, in part, to the natural decay of the facilities through underfunded maintenance, and a change in the local land use that had seen the surrounding district move from largely unpopulated commercial land to low and medium density housing.

The capability afforded by the facility was mission critical to government, and those operations could not be interrupted.

Commercial alternatives were available but limited. All commercial options had significant limitations, and the shortage of commercial facilities made access very competitive. An acceptable facility was being offered by a commercial operator as a step-in for a lease that was being terminated. The facility was being offered for just over two years but required an almost immediate commitment. The commercial operator had already extended the offer once to accommodate decision delays in the Department and, having another offer on the table was reticent to extend longer than a few weeks.

It was possible to remediate the facility at a cost circa $10m and 12-18 months. A plan was in to replace the facility as part of a larger major works program, through this was unlikely to be approved and operational within three to four years.

Compounding the matter, around $15m of specialist, perishable, bulk goods, had been ordered and was due to arrive for off-loading at the, now high risk, client facility – within a week.

Kiah, being involved in other matters at the client site at the time, was asked to help in building the decision briefs exploring the options, seeking funding approval and establishing the necessary commercial arrangements to make sure operations could continue – all within a week or two.

The solution: The Kiah MD led this activity by establishing a combined Kiah and government team. The Kiah team brought strong skills in building complex papers and articulating options, while the government team understood government process – and took the lead with the necessary inter- and intra-departmental senior relationships.

A traditional approach to building an options paper would be to develop a draft paper, staff it widely, collate and address comments, negotiate internal consensus and finally seek approval. At that stage, under normal protocols, we could seek funding approval and then engage commercially. This approach was not going to work.

Instead we sought to approach the challenge by doing two things differently:

1.  developing the options paper and engaging commercially at the same time

2.  adopting a process of visual argumentation, rather than traditional staff work.

The parallel approach proved fruitful as the discussion with the commercial operators highlighted issues that needed to be addressed for any solution to be robust. The parallel discussion also unearthed other variants to the options that had not been considered.

Visual argumentation, or argumentation mapping, is a well-known but often theoretical process. At Kiah we have adopted an online software solution and applied pragmatic approaches to the theory. In essence, the approach puts forward a proposed solution – a contention or hypothesis. The process then seeks objections – embraces them in fact-seeking reasons why the proposed solution will not work.

Objections are either rebutted and set aside, therefore making the solution stronger or are recognised as a limitation that has to be accepted. Ultimately the senior decision makers are offered a clear set of options and impacts. It is their role to make a choice on the acceptability of impacts and limitations.

It was Kiah’s job to build viable options and give clarity to their choices.

The outcome: A decision was made within a week, and commercial arrangements were established within a fortnight.

Interim arrangements, in conjunction with the commercial operator, for the imminent arrival of the bulk goods were made and the client’s operations continued unabated.

In recognition, Kiah, alongside the client team, was awarded a Departmental commendation for this work.

The lesson: Structured and traditional processes give scale and certainty. They are comfortable. Sometimes circumstances conspire so that the being safe is no longer safe.