Sex and poetry

file000500940833None 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.


  1. Hans Houtman Reply

    So where do we find “the best way”? And what is “best industry practice”? It is so easy to mention them, but how do we know what is “best” for an organization when this organization moves in a dynamic and complex world and, as mentioned in the article, is different from other organizations.
    Can managers accept that there is a limit? A limit to what can be done to improve safety and that, even after changes and improvements, humans will still make mistakes?

  2. Fredrik Forsman Reply

    Thank you for sharing your ambiguity. I often find myself in a similar situation, especially when I speak to practitioners from nuclear power plants and similar business. I guess that the reductionist way of thinking is so deeply rooted that it becomes hard to challenge.

    1. Andrew Townsend Reply

      Fredrik – We are just about to do this with the UK establishment. Most are engineers and think that safety outcomes can be predicted with the repeatability of a physical calculation. I fear that it will be a struggle to get them to understand the concept of ‘probability’ in place of their illusory models of certainty. We will keep everyone posted on this one.

      I know the mindset you are referring to. I worked in an operating oil refinery for 25 years. They are only now just beginning to understand that people are not machines!

    2. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Fredrik, I increasingly doubt/fear that the challenging approach, as embarked upon above, is rather meaningless. A change from componentialism to (a more) holistic thinking rarely, if ever, comes through a top-down reasoning/arguing/convincing. #changeisnotrational-Daniel

  3. Rachel Lopez Reply

    Daniel – Thank you for your reflection on this. It is thought provoking and certainly can be identified as a dilemma by those that appreciate the value of a holistic framework for safety decision making which is in alignment with ethical decision making and recognizes the human factor and emotional intelligence in the process . As part of an assignment for Masters in Management, I was most interested to learn that higher education business ethics curriculum currently teaches linear models of thinking despite all the advances over the last 20 years to challenge this framework as inadequate. This may well explain why this reductionist way of thinking continues and continues to be subject to critical enquiry.

    1. Andrew Townsend Reply

      Daniel and Rachel – Don’t give up too soon. There has got to be a way of facilitating a change in thinking except that we don’t know what it is yet. My gut feel is that there is that there is evidence that ‘holistic’ approaches produce better results. One problem is the use of English. Words like ‘holistic’ are associated with the hippy era and ‘reductionist’ makes us sound like an intellectual elite above common mortals. Start finding out what language makes sense to those on the receiving end. For example maybe we should be using the phrase ‘standing back from the detail’ instead of the word ‘holistic’.

      Start looking for and then quoting examples of where standing back from the detail led to successful or better outcomes. The same manager who was the example of treating his workforce with respect also used to climb to the top of the tallest structure on his site and just watch. He then used to watch the ebb and flow of people and the body language between them. He is quoted “You can’t put a number on body language, but after an hour I knew which parts of my site needed support and which I could just leave to get on with it.”

      Also treat those who think in detail with respect. We still need people in an organisation who have to manage the mass of detail.

      I believe one key is getting close to people and letting them get close to you. That way you get to find out what makes sense or does not make sense to them and you can tailor how you communicate to them. On one project we had an accountant who also was a classical guitarist so we used to discuss the great guitar composers. On the same project most of the foremen had young children, so we used to discuss ‘Winnie the Pooh’. The minor expenditure of effort involved pays dividends.

      Start by getting on their wavelength rather than expecting them to get on to ours. Once you have a dialogue going then you can start injecting new ideas at a pace they can cope with.

      Wish me luck. On Wednesday I shall be presenting to a forum of reductionist thinkers including some high up civil servants. I need to put action where my mouth is and build bridges. I need to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ if I expect them to walk a mile in mine.


  4. Rachel Lopez Reply

    Hi Andrew,
    I am a strong advocate for your view, and for those who strive tosupport new ways of thinking. This is not to say that we need to eliminate all the competency that have been built in a multidiscipline profession but more that we need to think critically as a profession. In my conversations with executive I recognize the value of constructive conversations to apply different perspectives to challenging situations and understand what it is like to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’. That is the value if a multi-framed view which delivers solutions that are more sustainable. In doing I also share the experience of being mentored by them. Hence I also see the value of building bridges and frameworks at the higher educational level also to help recognize that a deeper level of complexity is needed to connect that bridge.

    1. Andrew Townsend Reply

      Rachel and Steffen – Thanks

      For info I was so nervous I fluffed my presentation but one or two people picked up on what I was trying to achieve. Walking a mile in the shoes of the politicians in the group they were expecting an urbane performance and they did not get one – so what are they to feel? I did not deliver what I had led them to expect. Most of what I delivered went straight over the top of their heads

      Building bridges also involves having the courage to acknowledge and cope with one’s own ‘imperfections’ and not getting it right all the time. And did I really get it so wrong? By demonstrating fallibility it may be that I can encourage others to realise that safety is too black and white a concept – the illusion of a perfect ‘safe’ world is in itself dangerous.

  5. Rachel Lopez Reply

    Hi Andrew,
    Sometimes the seed that is planted in the minds of those who are expecting a magic wand takes time to come to fruition and therein may lie the message. The learning for me is safety is not black and white, people are fallible including safety professionals, and human error is what makes us both fallible and capable of peak potential. The way forward is about an informed approach which builds on what we know and value, and empowers us have a sense of conviction to make a difference. It is possible!

  6. Greg Arrell Reply

    Hi All.
    I liked what everyone had to say on this topic.
    If we expect to “nail it” so that we can just sit back and enjoy the ride, then we are in for disappointment.
    My way of looking at Safety Management (really it is all about working with people) is to keep looking back to the basic principles.
    Sometimes we become too “Big Picture” in our outlook.
    We cannot afford to forget that any successful operation is supported by it’s basic tasks, activities and the management of their inherent hazards and associated risks.

    1. Daniel Hummerdal Post author Reply

      Hi Greg,
      Thanks for your comment! I would love to hear more about what you define as the ‘basic principles’ of safety management.

      I agree with the risk of becoming ‘too big picture’ Do you have any advice on how we can know/identify when it happens?


      1. Greg Arrell Reply

        Hi Daniel.
        I come from a trade and supervisory background in residential and commercial building, civil and infrastructure industries.
        I believe that in any discipline the basics are often overlooked as we move into a world of technical complexity.
        In building the basic principles that have allowed buildings and structiures to withstand the test of time and the leements of nature are e.g.
        Work with the the natural laws of gravity, fluids, impact of the elements (wind, water, sun, heat, cold etc.)
        Place one brick or block of stone level, straight, plumb and square on two below it or a large stable base’.
        Widen the support base and increase the stability of the structure above (just try to push over a stone pyramid and see how true this is.)
        Lap the upper tile, shingle, thatching material etc over each one below etc. to allow water to run off without penetrating the roof.
        For Safety, look at what can harm a person and use the heirarch of control to Eliminate, Substitute, Replace, Engineer, Administrate or use PPE. Eliminate = best down to PPE (PersonalProtective Equipment) which is the last resort.
        You don’t necessarily need to hold a degree in Physics to understand the physical principles as applied to Safety;
        Gravity will always pull things down toward the earth, water/fluids will seek to find the same level or move to the lowest level it can, etc.
        I can calculate the stored energy (due to gravitational force) in a suspended pallet of bricks but all that I really need to know is that if it falls onto me it will kill or seroiusly injure me.
        I know none of this is original but it is my experience.


        1. Rachel Lopez Reply

          Hi Greg,
          Just to put another perspective to explain the challenge of complexity when it comes to safety is to come from the angle of the people factor so that we understand human fallibilities and limitations. Different operational environments require different levels of competency and understanding of risk and it’s not always ‘big bang theory’ stuff however there is one common thread of complexity in all workplaces when it comes to understanding people particularly when things go wrong. Humanity can throw curve balls at us and it doesn’t how good we thinks we are with ‘basic safety principles’ , my experience has been that this has always been a testing point. As a result I strongly support lifelong learning in this field which is competency based.

Leave a Reply to Rachel Lopez Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *