Last year I attended a safety conference. The content was traditional: a heart wrenching accident story, a government representative showing statistics and explaining accident reduction goals, legal experts clarifying the latest regulatory advancements, and a corporate achiever informing about their program to get the workforce to comply.
Celebrating this managerial top-down approach, there were moral undertones and an air of scientific precision. The problem was ‘out there’. Clearly. It was possible to measure it, and to manage it by changing variables here and there. There was input and output, and (supposedly) manageable components: behaviour, technology, organisation, structures. It seemed like a world of programming. And everyone was looking for the program that would bring safety under control.
It was so lifeless, so constraining, so little potential, so excruciatingly linear. Cause and effect. Very Newtonian. Despite the ambition to save human lives, I found the approach rather anti-human.
But perhaps understandably so. Organisational efforts in general, and safety efforts in particular, are about maintaining control over processes and keeping chaos at bay. For personal and process safety alike. So it makes sense to predict, plan, control and constrain. From that perspective, there is little room for the unexpected, for diversity, change, and other frequent life ingredients.
Early organisational theorists like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, suggested that work could be optimised by dividing tasks into sub-tasks, specifying the optimal way to go about these, and ensure compliance with such standardised prescriptions. More than 100 years later, many safety initiatives are still firmly rooted in this tradition. It translates to producing detailed work instructions, establishing reward and punishment schemes to drive behaviours, tighter monitoring from peers and supervisors, more precise measurements of deviations, and making statutory examples of transgressors.
Telling people how to do their work may sometimes be a successful approach. But it is not effective to create engagement for the task. It is difficult to take ownership of a task, or of safety, when someone else has done all the necessary thinking – when you don’t need to engage your own problem-solving capacity. And when accidents happen, safety champions declare “Told you it was dangerous! We need more resources to really make sure that people are safe!” More procedures, more OHS professionals, and tighter constraints normally follow – driving the externalisation even further.
As a result, the road to safety is increasingly populated with people whose capacities to contribute to safety improvements remain unknown, and people who are afraid of punishment and driven by self-interest.
Fortunately, many areas, including safety, increasingly recognise these limitations. Insights from fields like systems thinking, complexity theory, chaos theory, and thermodynamics, suggest that ‘self-organisation’ is a much more promising approach to cope with complexity and change. Management approaches developed on these insights step away from normative prescription, towards using ideas about engagement, collaboration, support, and collective intelligence – steps towards a more ‘formative’ approach. These give back task ownership to workers. They build trust. They empower people, permit them to become safety expert of their own work. In a sense, it is about giving up top-down attempts to control. It is about giving up finding the right model, because our complex reality refuse to be reduced into a neat package. And it is about asking questions on how we all can support each other in being successful. It is about a distributed, bottom-up, emergent ‘leadership’.
The other week I met with a senior safety manager for a major construction firm. He told me that they now ambition to do away with as many prescriptive procedures as possible. Their active goal is to reduce the number and length of work instructions. For a few activities, for example work in confined space, they have strict procedures to follow. But otherwise, they now govern work by establishing goals and objectives, and informing about dangers. Beyond that, they leave it up to individuals and groups to go about work in whatever way they deem appropriate. They trust their employees to take ownership of the task. And then they have an ongoing conversation, to learn more about what just happened, to share good ways, to address less successful ways. Informed variability in action.