As many of my clients, connections and colleagues would know, I’m a strong advocate of the ‘new view’ of safety, so when I was invited to submit an article for the Safety Differently Website I didn’t want to merely preach to the converted.
Hence, in this short piece I have firmly placed a ”black cap” on my head (partly to play a devil’s advocate role, and partly to cover my crazy COVID-19 haircut!).
While an advocate, I have experienced, and foresee some challenges ahead which could potentially inhibit the ‘new view’ from reaching the potential that the safety field so badly needs and deserves. Some food for thought …
Let’s get started!
I was on the ‘phone with Greg – the safety manager of a large mine site – who had been tasked by his Senior Leadership Team (SLT) to begin the process of making a “step change” in safety. His company had been bumbling along with traditional approaches such as BBS and all the usual “Zero Harm” bullshit – in fact they had gone a step further and adopted the particularly deranged platitude of “Beyond Zero” … what, are they going to reincarnate people now? Despite the desperately optimistic slogan, incident rates had plateaued rather than decreased over the last few years.
The call progressed along the following lines:
Greg: “So can you come to site to talk with me and the GM about what we need to do?”
Me: “Sure, but I’m tied up for a couple of weeks”
Greg: “Ok, no problem – can you suggest some reading for me in the meantime? I really want to make a start on this – we had a serious incident recently and the SLT is really on my case”.
I made a few suggestions, and then followed up with an email listing what I believed could be useful books and resources. Greg told me he was going to a safety leadership conference prior to our meeting that he thought might also provide him with some good insights.
A few weeks later I was in Greg’s office. He had clearly done his homework, as evidenced by him pointing to a list of words and acronyms on a whiteboard. He had condensed what he considered to be the most salient points of the books I’d recommended, as well as what he’d picked up at the conference. I smiled as I read through some very familiar concepts, including (but not limited to) …
- Safety Differently
- Safety II
- Resilience Engineering
- High Reliability Organisations
- Human Factors
Greg said “tell me about these”.
To initially probe Greg’s own discoveries, I replied, “Sure, but first, what is your understanding of the concepts?”
Greg did a reasonable job describing the basic tenets of each approach, even if he was – from time to time – reading from highlighted sections of a moth eaten notebook. (“It’s not a test Greg!”).
“Ok” I said, “So what else do you want to know about them?”
“Well”, Greg replied, “I want to know which one is best to use, and then how to get started – I need to provide the SLT with a tangible plan!” Picking up on Greg’s haste, I said, “Before we get into that, let’s explore a couple of questions. What is the problem you’re wanting to solve, and what do you understand the underlying philosophies of the ‘new’ approaches to be?”
Greg smiled! “Y’know Clive, the reason the SLT wants to explore a step change is because when they look at the output from our accident investigations, it always seems like the problem is our people – taking short cuts, unnecessary risks, not wearing their gloves, rushing etc. We are wanting to solve our people’s behaviours!” He added, with a resigned grin “And what you’re now going to tell me is that the underlying philosophy of these new concepts is that our people are NOT the problem, right?”
“Then why so many concepts?” Greg asked. “If they’re all saying we need to look to our people for answers, why not put the various approaches under an umbrella term? Is Safety II just a subset of Safety Differently? The other way around? Or do they all fall under the banner of HOP?” With urgency he added. “More to the point, when I take this to the SLT, what do I call it?”
Greg has a point. I have asked similar questions myself, on LinkedIn discussion threads where HOP and Safety Differently nerds commonly hang out. I recently asked why the terms Safety Differently and Safety II (not to mention HOP) are often used interchangeably when they’re actually different concepts?
The brilliant David Provan responded, suggesting that perhaps we shouldn’t get too hung up on labels, yet he conceded it may have been better if we had just stuck with “High Reliability Organizing”.
But labels ARE important! In psychology “names set frames”. Part of the success (in terms of prevalence and popularity) of Behaviour Based Safety (BBS) is the simplicity and brevity of the label. It sets up a clear frame of “this is about focusing on people’s behaviours to improve safety”. While BBS has many individual components (most of which make me want to retch), they are grouped under a very clear and salient “brand” which has served those who profit from it extremely well, despite its patent limitations in preventing major injuries. There is (at present) no similar “branding” of the ‘new view’ – instead there are a number of vague, similar, overlapping (albeit worthy) concepts that make it more challenging for the Gregs of the world to really grab hold of, let alone “sell” to his SLT. Even when a zealous ‘new view’ advocate resolves the labeling issues, another potential challenge for Greg (and his contemporaries) is the ‘how’.
For example, on the one hand, Sidney Dekker states that Safety Differently is not prescriptive, and that there are no checklists to follow in order to successfully implement the approach. In fact he suggests that dogmatically following a recipe would indicate a regression to traditional safety thinking. Hence, people like Greg – who intuitively find the new philosophy appealing – may be disappointed at the lack of a New View User’s Manual, and beat a hasty retreat to the comfort of BBS (NO, GREG, NO!!!!). On the other hand, Dekker himself offers a highly prescriptive approach to facilitating a Restorative Just Culture – a central element of the ‘new view’. This apparent contradiction possibly arises because Safety Differently, Safety II and HOP are centered around leaders inviting their people in, and therefore the output from such a collaborative methodology will necessarily be unique to a particular leader and his/her team – it is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Nevertheless, contributors to the ‘new view’ literature have identified several core processes that – while not constituting a recipe – could act as a foundation for successful implementation – and this is the sort of stuff that could really help Greg out!
Such core processes include:
- Decentralizing and devolving power
- An analysis of work as imagined versus work as done
- Appreciative Investigations
- Restorative Just Culture
As early adopters like Simon Bown (London Luton Airport) share their first tentative steps towards operationalizing the ‘new view’ the emergence of such common themes could assist Greg’s own implementation design and strategies, at the very least giving him a starting point and a plan to present to his leaders. While successful implementation will still require him to think things through, and to bring a curious mindset to interactions with his own team, that need not prohibit him learning from the pioneers who have successfully put ‘new view’ processes into action. A new view is worth little if there is no ‘new do!’
It’s my observation that there is far more excitement about the ‘new view’ of safety within Academia then there is within the very industries that would most benefit from applying the various concepts. This is hardly surprising, yet it needs to change if the movement is to be more than a passing fad. My own background is in applied, rather than theoretical psychology. I’m actually much better at helping leaders like Greg to apply new concepts, than I am at coming up with them in the first place! Yet my role is no less important than that of the creative types who conjure up innovative ideas. Innovative ideas will only become innovative solutions when they are perceived to be clearly defined and actionable by people like Greg.
So Greg and I agreed it would be best (for now) to take David Provan’s advice and not worry about labels, as the sheer amount of contributing concepts to the ‘new view’ could well muddy the waters in the short presentation to the SLT.
Instead, we would focus on the underlying philosophy common to all the concepts, namely, “Our people are the solution”.
I asked Greg “What do you think will be required for that shift to happen?” After a short pause he responded. “Trust! The SLT needs to trust the workforce, and the workforce will need to trust us leaders”. Right – Now we have a clear focus for the meeting, and a starting point for our intervention – building trust (and/or overcoming mistrust).
In a recent Podcast (The HOP Nerd), the irrepressible host (Samuel Goodman) was interviewing Sidney Dekker, perhaps the leading (and certainly the best known) advocate of the ‘new view’. At the end of the interview, Samuel asked Sidney for a final thought he’d like to leave the listener with that tied everything together. “We’ve got to start trusting each other,” said Dekker.
I couldn’t agree more. There can be no successful implementation of the ‘new view’ without first building the requisite trust. Despite the role of trust being foundational to the approach, it has received scant attention in the Safety Differently literature and discussion – I believe this needs to change. If organizations fail to lay the foundations for successful implementation, the worthy approaches could fail to gain traction.
When leaders have trust in their teams, and have established psychological safety throughout their organization, the ‘new view’ holds great promise. Moreover, where such trust already exists, the very nature of the approach is likely to help further embed and sustain psychological safety.
There is a veritable mountain of research demonstrating the links between trust and safety performance, and this may help to offset another frequent criticism of the ‘new view’ – a lack of research evidence. In my opinion, it is rather churlish for advocates of traditional safety to attack the ‘new view’ on such grounds, given the relative recency of the approaches. Moreover, its not like traditional safety is exactly covered in research glory!
As John Green pointed out “No-one approaches safety with more scientific rigor than the Safety Differently community – and I would throw the same challenge back to the traditional practitioners – if you are relying on Heinrich, triangles or dominoes for your safety programmes then you are the ones building on sand, you are the ones in glass houses throwing stones. The absence of scientific testing in these approaches is simply breath-taking.” – Thanks John, and don’t even get me started on BBS! Behaviourism struggled to predict behaviours in rats and pigeons, let alone humans!
I have little doubt that the ‘new view’ will receive ample empirical support in due course. Nevertheless, what would help in this regard is a clear set of tangible variables to measure – appealing philosophies and vague concepts will prove insufficient for the rigours of sound research.
Ok, back to Greg.
Greg and I wrote a short presentation for the SLT, which we co-facilitated. We outlined the research on trust and its relationship with mature safety cultures and safety performance. We then set out an action plan for building trust among the workforce (which involved implementing several of the ‘new view’ concepts). The availability of hard research evidence around trust enabled us to make a compelling case for change, and it was well received by the senior leaders in the room. The journey towards doing safety differently had begun!
I spoke with Greg again recently, and he is really pleased with the progress being made on site. He was writing up a report for the regulator, and in the document he was explaining how the company had moved beyond BBS in favour of a new evidence-based approach based on trust and relationship-based leadership. He wanted to know what to call it …