When thinking of Safety, think of coffee aroma

CoffeeSafety has always been a hard sell to management and to front-line workers because, as Karl Weick put forward, Safety is a dynamic non-event. Non-events are taken for granted. When people see nothing, they presume that nothing is happening and that nothing will continue to happen if they continue to act as before.

I’m now looking at Safety from a complexity science perspective as something that emerges when system agents interact. An example is aroma emerging when hot water interacts with dry coffee grinds. Emergence is a real world phenomenon that System Thinking does not address.

Safety-I and Safety-II do not create safety but provide the conditions for Safety to dynamically emerge. But as a non-event, it’s invisible and people see nothing. Just as safety can emerge, so can danger as an invisible non-event. What we see is failure (e.g., accident, injury, fatality) when the tipping point is reached. We can also reach a tipping point when we do much of a good thing. Safety rules are valuable but if a worker is overwhelmed by too many, danger in terms of confusion, distraction can emerge.

I see great promise in advancing the Safety-II paradigm to understand what are the right things people should be doing under varying conditions to enable safety to emerge.

For further insights into Safety-II, I suggest reading Steven Shorrock’s posting What Safety-II isn’t on Safetydifferently.com. Below are my additional comments under each point made by Steven with a tie to complexity science. Thanks, Steven.

Safety-II isn’t about looking only at success or the positive
Looking at the whole distribution and all possible outcomes means recognizing there is a linear Gaussian and a non-linear Pareto world. The latter is where Black Swans and natural disasters unexpectedly emerge.

Safety-II isn’t a fad
Not all Safety-I foundations are based on science. As Fred Manuelle has proven, Heinrich’s Law is a myth. John Burnham’s book Accident Prone offers a historical rise and fall of the accident proneness concept. We could call them fads but it’s difficult to since they have been blindly accepted for so long.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Santa Fe Institute where Complexity science was born. At the May 2012 Resilience Lab I attended, Erik Hollnagel and Richard Cook introduced the RMLA elements of Resilience engineering: Respond, Monitor, Learn, Anticipate. They fit with Cognitive-Edge’s complexity view of Resilience: Fast recovery (R), Rapid exploitation (M,L), Early detection (A). This alignment had led to one way to operationalize Safety-II.

Safety-II isn’t ‘just theory’
As a pragmatist, I tend to not use the word “theory” in my conversations. Praxis is more important to me instead of spewing theoretical ideas. When dealing with complexity, the traditional Scientific Method doesn’t work. It’s not deductive nor inductive reasoning but abductive. This is the logic of hunches based on past experiences  and making sense of the real world.

Safety-II isn’t the end of Safety-I
The focus of Safety-I is on robust rules, processes, systems, equipment, materials, etc. to prevent a failure from occurring. Nothing wrong with that. Safety-II asks what can we do to recover when failure does occur plus what can we do to anticipate when failure might happen.

Resilience can be more than just bouncing back. Why return to the same place only to be hit again? Early exploitation means finding a better place to bounce to. We call it “swarming” or Serendipity if an opportunity unexpectedly arises.

Safety-II isn’t about ‘best practice’
“Best” practice does exist but only in the Obvious domain of the Cynefin Framework. It’s the domain of intuition and the Thinking Fast in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. What’s the caveat with best practices? There’s no feedback loop. So people just carry on as they did before.  Some best practices become good habits. On the other hand, danger can emerge from the baddies and one will drift into failure.

Safety-II and Resilience is about catching yourself before drifting into failure. Being alert to detect weak signals (e.g., surprising behaviours, strange noises, unsettling rumours) and having physical systems and people networks in place to trigger anticipatory awareness.

Safety-II isn’t what ‘we already do’
“Oh, yes, we already do that!” is typically expressed by an expert. It might be a company’s line manager or a safety professional. There’s minimal value challenging the response.  You could execute an “expert entrainment breaking” strategy. The preferred alternative? Follow what John Kay describes in his book Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly.

Don’t even start by saying “Safety-II”. Begin by gathering stories and making sense of how things get done and why things are done a particular way. Note the stories about doing things the right way. Chances are pretty high most stories will be around Safety-I. There’s your data, your evidence that either validates or disproves “we already do”. Tough for an expert to refute.

Safety-II isn’t ‘them and us’
It’s not them/us, nor either/or, but both/and.  Safety-I+Safety-II. It’s Robustness + Resilience together.  We want to analyze all of the data available, when things go wrong and when things go right.

The evolution of safety can be characterized by a series of overlapping life cycle paradigms. The first paradigm was Scientific Management followed by the rise of Systems Thinking in the 1980s. Today Cognition & Complexity are at the forefront. By honouring the Past, we learn in the Present. We keep the best things from the previous paradigms and let go of the proven myths and fallacies.

Safety-II isn’t just about safety
Drinking a cup of coffee should be a total experience, not just tasting of the liquid. It includes smelling the aroma, seeing the Barista’s carefully crafted cream design, hearing the first slurp (okay, I confess.) Safety should also be a total experience.

Safety can emerge from efficient as well as effective conditions.  Experienced workers know that a well-oiled, smoothly running machine is low risk and safe. However, they constantly monitor by watching gauges, listening for strange noises, and so on. These are efficient conditions – known minimums, maximums, and optimums that enable safety to emerge. We do things right.

When conditions involve unknowns, unknowables, and unimaginables, the shift is to effectiveness. We do the right things. But what are these right things?

It’s about being in the emerging Present and not worrying about some distant idealistic Future. It’s about engaging the entire workforce (i.e., wisdom of crowds) so no hard selling or buying-in is necessary.  It’s about introducing catalysts to reveal new work patterns.  It’s about conducting small “safe-to-fail” experiments to  shift the safety culture. It’s about the quick implementation of safety solutions that people want now.

Signing off and heading to Starbucks.