Safety Differently

My thanks to Peter Caulfield for interviewing me and writing an article in the Journal of Commerce on a different view of safety.


Veteran Vancouver engineer and consultant Gary Wong says the safety industry needs to reexamine its goals and how to accomplish them if it wants to keep workers safe and at the same time make them productive.

Wong’s approach, called Safety Differently, is based on what he says is a more realistic take on what goes on in the workplace.

“Industry standards and practices typically evolve based on what we learn from failures,” says Wong. “But evolution in the safety industry has been slow and continues to follow the old idea that safety is only the absence of people getting hurt.”

That approach, says Wong, is based on the belief that humans must be controlled with compliance rules and procedures.

“If an accident occurs, we automatically look for the people to blame and then punish them through discipline or termination,” Wong says. “Experts today promote the idealistic goal of zero harm, so it isn’t surprising workers are confused if a safety dilemma arises.”

Safety Differently on the other hand credits workers for getting things right, which he says they do most of the time.

“Safety Differently sees people as the solution and safety as an ethical responsibility,” says Wong. “It recognizes that safety is not something that is created, but emerges out of a complex adaptive system.”

When facing an unexpected change, people will adjust their actions accordingly, he says. In most cases, their adjustment will keep them stay safe.

But an unexpected change can also be dangerous, and, if a tipping point is reached, an incident can happen.

“Safety Differently focuses on hidden non-linear tipping point signals and how humans sense impending danger,” Wong says.

“It boosts the capacity of people to handle their activities safely and successfully under different conditions.”

Ron Gantt, vice-president of SCM Safety Inc. in San Ramon, Calif., says there is a big difference between Safety Differently and the old way of doing safety.

“The old safety model focuses on regulations and takes an adversarial approach,” Gantt says. “Safety Differently, on the other hand, is more collaborative, with more worker participation in finding solutions that prevent accidents.”

Safety Differently is based on three principles, Gantt says.

“First, it is a forward-looking, predictive tool,” he says.

“It looks ahead to prevent accidents in the future, not backward at accidents that happened in the past. Its purpose is to build the capacity to be successful from now on and as conditions change.”

Safety Differently’s second operating principle is that people are the solution, not the problem.

“People are instinctive risk managers and they have an innate ability for creative problem-solving,” Gantt says. “Let’s trust them to do the right thing. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of trust in the old safety model.”

Third, the people at the top of an organization should view safety as an ethical responsibility.

“They need to be curious about what their employees want and make an effort to satisfy them,” Gantt says.
Safety Differently is needed, he says, because the world is becoming more interdependent and complex and small changes can have huge effects.

Support for Safety Differently is growing, he adds.

“Many safety professionals are frustrated with the old way of doing things,” Gantt says.

At the same time, there is resistance from people and groups with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

“They are likely to say that the way to reduce the number of workplace injuries and deaths is to keep things the old way but to try harder,” he says.

Erik Hollnagel, a Danish academic and expert in system safety and human reliability analysis, advocates the application of “synesis to safety.” The term means the same thing as synthesis, or bringing together.

“The effort to ensure that work goes well and that the number of acceptable outcomes is as high as possible requires a unification of priorities, perspectives and practices,” says Hollnagel.

“Synesis brings together all these practices to produce outcomes that satisfy more than one priority and even reconciles multiple priorities.”

Many sectors of the economy conflate safety and quality or safety and productivity, Hollnagel says.

“We can look at a process or work situation from a safety point of view, from a quality point of view or from a productivity point of view,” Hollnagel says.

“But we should keep in mind that any individual point of view reveals only part of what is going on and that it is necessary to understand what is going on as a whole.”

Using Cynefin to publish a book

It’s been some time since I last blogged on my website. It’s not because I’ve grown tired of complexity and safety; it’s mainly due to my  involvement with friends to publish a book about an amazing man who dedicated over 50 years on the University of British Columbia campus. The target was achieved: The Age of Walter Gage: How One Canadian Shaped the Lives of Thousands.  This particular blog is not about the book  but  how Cynefin  dynamics  & cadence was put to good use.

When the book idea took hold in early 2016, it wasn’t a surprise that we started in the Cynefin Complicated domain. We certainly did not qualify as experts in producing a book but as “expert” engineers schooled in systems thinking, we all had a propensity to set a desired future state target and build a project plan by linearly working backwards. We at least were cognizant we needed the right set of talent and skills – writing, photo compilation , book editing, publication, distribution. The first milestone on the roadmap was a book publishing firm that would assume these activities in their entirety. Then we could manage the project in the Complicated domain using a “waterfall” approach.

I volunteered to build a companion website (open network platform) to collect stories (narrative research). My blogging efforts would focus on engaging storytellers and spreading the news about our Walter Gage book project. We literally had no clue who had stories and how many there were. All that we knew was that time was not on our side so there was an urgency to contact storytellers before life took its natural toll.

The prompt question for stories was simple: “a personal or professional experience that sheds light on how Walter Gage impacted you.” While written stories were requested, we did receive other narrative fragments – a voice recording, photos and letters.

Could I have signified the stories with triads and dyads to later search for patterns? Yes, but  it would have required team education and, of course, more work (probably unappreciated) by storytellers. Instead, we chose to rely on the hired author’s vast experience to read the stories and extract themes worth highlighting in the book.

While I was busy gathering stories and narrative fragments, other team members were approaching several publishers with our book idea.  While we were told our pitch was for a noble cause and commendable, nobody signed on.  We learned that our  “business case” did not provide sufficient ROI as a money-making opportunity.

Drat. Our path was broken. The roadmap led us to a dead end. Being resilient, we shifted into the above diagram’s “Yellow loop” to reset our thinking.  We decided to deploy a self-publishing strategy and search for resources who could help us make our book a reality. It also meant more work on our part.  It was intriguing to observe the team’s need to “self-organize.” We were divided into 2 sub teams- Book Creation and Marketing. Was there a concern for the silo effect? Yes, but like physical silos on a farm which are ventilated, we continued to meet often as an overall team to enable venting to take place.

Due to our lack of knowledge and practical experience, I knew our cadence would be between Cynefin Complicated and Complex domains (the “Blue loop”). Whenever a totally unexpected unintended consequence emerged, we would move into the Complex domain. With the Engineer’s disposition to immediately “fix” a problem, patience was necessary to make sense of outcomes and explore options. BTW, not all consequences were negative. One UBC grad came forth and surprised us with a major donation. Serendipity at its finest!

I introduced different software tools to the team. Some worked, some didn’t. I opened a Trello board to track our progress under the 2 sub teams. It was great for storing documents and having them available at a meeting with a couple of clicks. However,  I ran into objections regarding too many email notifications being received. I also learned that not all team members wanted the full picture, just happy to do their tasks. I eventually deleted half the team with the balance remaining on the app to stay abreast. Chalk it up as a safe-to-fail experiment.

Our primary online communication mode was Email, with all its pros and cons. “Reply to All” messages became problematic. One time we had a thread with over 72 responses. Talk about being on the Obvious/Chaotic boundary with a failure looking for a place to happen! Attachments were easily lost in the long threads. Fortunately with Trello I was able to access quickly and send them to members, as a separate new email of course.

“Email tag” had me thinking of introducing Slack to simplify communication but my Trello discovery led me to a “Don’t even think about it” conclusion. When navigating complexity, we can’t control human behaviour but can only influence the relationships and interactions amongst team members. In this case, I chose not to drop in Slack as a catalyst which would have certainly disrupted communication patterns but, who knows, maybe enable worse patterns to emerge.

We held two “by invitation only” project celebration events.  Planning was autonomic: Let’s issue invitations via email. After all, if you’re good with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Hmm, if there’s a “best practice” in the Obvious domain, email tops the list.

Thankfully I was able to influence the team to go with Evite.com. Its messaging features enabled us to leverage feedback loops, a key phenomenon of complex systems. One attendee even went a step further by posting photos of the event on evite.com for everyone to enjoy. (Note to self: Use evite.com to manage the next class reunion instead of personal email account.)

We have our official book launch tomorrow, Feb 15th.  The beginning of the end. Or perhaps the end of the beginning since book promotion and marketing now ramps up. Either way, I plan to invest more time pushing the boundaries on complexity and safety, from a natural sciences perspective.

 

 

 

 

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