Safety-I + Safety-II

At a July 03 hosted conference Dave Snowden and Erik Hollnagel shared their thoughts about safety. Dave’s retrospects of their meeting are captured in his blog posting. Over the next few blogs I’ll be adding my reflections as a co-developer of Cognitive-Edge’s Creating and Leading a Resilient Safety Culture course.

Erik introduced Safety-II to the audience, a concept based on an understanding of what work actually is, rather than what it is imagined to be. It involves placing more focus on the everyday events when things go right rather than on errors, incidents, accidents when things go wrong. Today’s dominating safety paradigm is based on the “Theory of Error”. While Safety-I thinking has advanced safety tremendously, its effectiveness is waning and is now on the downside of the S-curve. Erik’s message is that we need to escape and move to a different view based on the “Theory of Action”.

Erik isn’t alone. Sidney Dekker’s latest presentation on the history of safety reinforces how little safety thinking has changed and how we are plateauing. Current programs such as Hearts & Minds continue to assume people have physical, mental, and moral shortcomings as was done way back in the early 1900s.

Dave spoke about Resilience and why the is critical as its the outliers where you find threat and opportunity. In our CE safety course, we refer to the Safety-I events that help prevent things from going wrong as Robustness. This isn’t an Either/Or situation but a Both/And. You need both Robustness + Resilience.

As a young electrical utility engineer, the creator of work-as-imagined, I really wanted feedback but struggled obtaining it. It wasn’t until I developed a rapport with the workers was I able to close the feedback loop to make me a better designer. Looking back I realize how fortunate I was since the crews were in proximity and exchanges were eye-to-eye.

During these debriefs I probably learned more from the “work-as-done” stories. I was told changes were necessary due to something that I had initially missed or overlooked. But more often it was due to an unforeseen situation in the field such as a sudden shift in weather or unexpected interference from other workers at the job site. Crews would make multiple small adjustments to accommodate varying conditions without fuss, bother, and okay, the occasional swear word.

I didn’t know it then but I know now: these were adjustments one learns to anticipate in a complex adaptive system. It was also experiencing Safety-II and Resilience in action in the form of narratives (aka stories).