None of us said anything for a while. At the other end of the table was a safety manager for a construction company. I had just described some ideas on how to do safety differently.
-No. What we need is to find the right way to do it. Once we have that, we’ll put it into practice across every project.
I had tried to explain why safety can never be achieved with a one size fits all solution. And I had described why it is essential that organisations start hooking up with and unleashing their own diversity and creativity to battle complexity and adapt to change. A rather neat, coherent and convincing argument I thought. But apparently, not convincing enough.
Walking away from the meeting I started to question my own message. Perhaps he was right. His ‘best practices’ ambition had a compelling logic. Once you’ve found what works, is there any reason why you should not export and exploit it across a business? After all, isn’t that what everyone does at all levels of society? In our private lives we rely on things that have worked before and then we do copy-paste to solve new situations. In schools we train people to apply skills in locations that are fundamentally different from classrooms. And it is basically what science is about; after finding the true model of how the world works we can predict and control what happens. Obviously, it is possible to export success from one setting to another. The doubts intensified.
For some time, I saw the world through his eyes. I saw people trying to find Safety Performance Indicators that accurately and objectively informed if operations deviated from expectations. I read cultural programs that explained corporate values and what was expected of employees at different levels. I was asked to build a legal register to ensure due diligence. And I engaged with people writing a policy about what to do with unauthorized deviations from procedures. In a blue pill kind of way, the struggle for the right way was all there was – more order, more uniformity, more constraints.
Perhaps it is because the future is uncertain. Anything can happen. Good and bad. Success and failure. Predefined ideas on how to do things may provide a comforting map to the unknown, and instill some faith that we will be able to pull off a project (if only everyone followed the plan). Many such efforts may, however, be more about reducing social anxieties, than actually making things safer.
But, the world is in constant flux. Individuals change throughout a day (physically and psychologically). And they have to bring the backdrop of their private spheres into the workplace. Teams change as experienced colleagues leave and new members appear. Organisations re-organise. Sometimes, they take on work with less economic margins than before, or introduce new technology, or embark on a new project. Work tasks change as goods are delayed, appear ahead of time, or come in the wrong quantities. And the environment also shifts. From hot to cold, from day to night, or from dry to wet.
Sometimes, change is slow. Sometimes it is fast and happens simultaneously along multiple dimensions. But whatever the rate and quality of change, people and organisations must accommodate and adapt to situations as they evolve.
And here’s the thing: Reality is too complex to be fully captured by any one method. Poetry can never be like sex. And against an ever-changing backdrop a predefined plan to fight deviations will, at best, have a short expiry date. In the end, control is not something that comes from following what someone far away made up to be the best way. Control emerges, and sometimes fails, from the much more intimate interaction with local conditions, as they wax and wane, and as people cope with resources and boundary conditions. Control springs from what conditions there are, and not what there should be.
When we stop obsessing over who is responsible for holes and imperfection, about what is the right way, perhaps we can get on with helping each other creating working conditions that are robust, resilient and allow success under a broader set of conditions. What do people need? What strategies do they, or can they, rely on to adapt successfully? And how can we dampen the demands different sites put on people?
Much can be done to dampen the variability and surprises that test people’s capacity to maintain control: Logistics can be improved, and so can lights and ventilation. Systems can be made simpler by reducing goal conflicts and improving understanding of what goes on right now. Tool box talks can be set up to improve foreseeability of conditions that workers will face on a particular day (rather than talking about generic hazards). And questions about what went well and what can be improved can be asked on multiple levels to constantly improve.
Much can also be done by improving the availability of tools, information, colleagues, and other resources and strategies that the individuals and teams find most useful to rely on to achieve their goals. Doing so they stand a better chance to fight emergent threats and work toward success. More reliably, and farther removed from the safety boundary (without adding another layer of protection).
To learn about these needs and to improve what is, people at all levels of an organisation are needed. Those in position to see the bigger picture, and with power to shape downstream conditions, are needed to distribute resources wisely. But to do just that, they inescapably need those more familiar with local contexts.
The metaphor about ‘the one best way’ is perhaps a comforting idea to believe in. But it’s unrealistic, always an oversimplification, and is more likely to lead organisations astray, to induce misguided expenditures and initiatives. If there is a way, a road, a path to safety, it has to start with what is, not what should be.