The Future of Safety

Today I had the privilege and pleasure of speaking at the BCCGA AGM.  A copy of the slides presented can be downloaded here. In my conclusion I posed 4 questions for the BCCGA and its member organizations to consider.

1. What paradigm(s) should our safety vision be based upon?

The evolution of safety thinking can be viewed through 4 Ages.

The recurring theme is about how Humans were treated as new technologies were implemented into business practices. It’s logical that the changes in safety thinking mirror the evolution of Business Practices. The Ages of Technology, Human Factors, and Safety Management are rooted in an Engineering paradigm.

It’s Systems Thinking with distinct parts: People, Process, Technology. Treat them separately and then put them together to deliver a Strategy.  Reductionism works well when the system is stable, consistent, and relatively fixed by constraints imposed by humans (e.g., regulations, policies, standards, rules). However, in addition to ORDER, there are 2 other systems: COMPLEX and CHAOTIC in the real world. These two are constantly changing so a reductionistic approach is not appropriate. One must work holistically with an Ecological paradigm.

This diagram from the Cynefin Centre shows the relative sizing of the 3 systems. Complexity by far is the largest and continues to grow.  All organizations are complex adaptive system. A worthy safety vision must include the Age of Cognitive Complexity and view Safety as an emergent property of a complex adaptive system. The different thinking means rules don’t create safety but create the conditions that enable safety to emerge. Now we can understand why piling on more and more rules can lead to cognitive overload in workers and enable danger, not safety, to emerge.

2. How should we treat workers – as problems to be managed or solutions to be harnessed?

The Age of Technology and Age of Human Factors treated workers as problems – as cogs in a machine and as hazards to be controlled. The Age of Safety Management view recognizes that rules cannot cover every situation. Variability isn’t a threat but a necessity. We need to trust that humans always try to do what they think is right in the situation. The Age of Cognitive Complexity appreciates that humans think differently than logical information-processing machines in an Engineering paradigm. Humans are not rational thinkers; decisions are based on emotional reactions & heuristic shortcuts. As storytellers, people can articulate thick data that a typical report is unable to provide.  As solution providers, workers can call upon tacit knowledge – difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. Workers who feel like cogs or hazards tend to stay within themselves for fear of punishment. Knowledge is volunteered; never conscripted.

3. What safety heuristics can we share?

While Best Practices manuals are beneficial,  heuristics are on a  bigger stage when dealing with decisions. Humans make 95% of their decisions using heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts to help people make quick, satisfactory but not perfect decisions.

They are the rules of thumb that Masters pass on to their Apprentices. Organizations ought to have a means to collect Safety-II success stories and use pattern recognition tools. Heuristics that emerge can be distributed to Masters for accuracy scrutiny.

4. How can we get more safety stories like these, fewer stories like those?

This question pertains to a new way of shaping a safety vision through the use of narratives (stories, pictures, voice recordings, drawings, sketches, etc.)

Narratives are converted into data points to generate a 2D contour map or fitness landscape
Each dot is a story and seen together they form patterns. The map shows the general direction we want to head – top right corner (High compliance with rules & High level of getting the job done). Clearly we want more safety stories in the Green area.  We also want fewer in the Red and Brown areas. Here’s the rub: If we try to go directly for the top right corner, we won’t get there.  This is ATTITUDE mapping at a level way deeper than observable BEHAVIOUR. Instead we head for an Adjacent Possible.
We get people to tell more stories here, fewer there  by changing a human constraint. It might be loosening a controlling constraint like a rule or practice. It could also be introducing an enabling constraint like a new tool or process.
We gather more stories and monitor how the clusters are changing in real-time. The evolving landscape maps a new Present state – a new starting point. We then change another constraint. Since we can’t predict outcomes both positive and unintended negative consequences might emerge. We accelerate the positives and dampen the negatives. In essence we co-evolve our way to the top right corner of the map. This is how we shape our Safety Culture.

One thought on “The Future of Safety”

  1. Interesting read Gary,
    I’ve shared some similar thoughts on safety in my book Golden Stripes- Leadership on the High Seas. While the subtitle in about leadership- the ultimate goal of the book is to improve safety at sea. There are new mental-models for safety management and safety culture. The ideas are applicable in other industries as well.

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