The other day I was observing a medical first aid class, and the instructor was discussing the signs and symptoms of heart attacks. He showed a video from the deadliest catch where one of the people was clearly in distress and asked us to identify how we would know that he had a heart attack. Take a look at the video and see if you can tell.
Figure it out? It’s pretty easy. It’s the music.
Think about it. The easiest way to tell that this was a dangerous situation is the ominous music playing in the background telling you that, indeed, he’s not joking around.
My favorite definition of safety and resilience is that they are the capacity to be successful in varying conditions. Others have similar definitions, such as the capacity to fail safely. There is also a lot of discussion these days about something called adaptive capacity. All of these definitions and concepts share the common idea that capacity is a thing, and it’s a thing that we should pay attention to.
But what’s capacity?
Capacity is fundamentally about the ability or potential to do something. However, I differentiate between ability and capacity. When people use the word ability, they tend to mean more what an individual can do. Capacity involves individual ability but is also more than that. Capacity relates to a systemic ability or potential to do something.
For example, the music in the clip above that alerted us to the fact that the situation was serious is an external factor that works with our individual abilities to help us understand more clearly what is happening. The music tapped into the way we process situations to focus our attention. In a sense, the music increased our capacity to get to the right answer. The capacity was not any one thing though. It was the music interacting with how we evaluate music interacting with how we were evaluating the cues we saw.
In the same way, when we talk about building capacity to do something, we are meaning creating conditions when features of the environment interact with the features of the individuals involved to create the outcomes we are looking for. This is what differentiates capacity from other approaches to dealing with people. Whereas other approaches often seek to limit the negative aspects of people or perhaps even to eliminate people from the system altogether, approaches based on capacity seek to work with the innate potential of people. This does not mean that we see people as perfect. Instead, we recognize that what we call “error” is merely a product of human-environment mismatch. If we create more capacity within the situation, not only do we eliminate ‘errors’, but we create more success.
To build capacity, you first need to start by asking what it is you are trying to do. In the case of the clip above, the producers wanted the viewers to have the capacity to identify the situation as serious. So they created multiple cues pointing in that direction and minimized cues that would contradict that assessment. But in your role, capacity will likely be quite different. Below is a list of things to consider when determining what capacity is necessary to complete a task. Please do not consider this list exhaustive. It is only for illustration.
Tools. This one is straightforward. But if we are looking to build the potential for resilient performance, we should not only consider what tools are needed for the planned work but for the work that does not go exactly as planned (i.e., basically always)?
Competence. Every task involves some skill and knowledge. What is necessary for this task? For example, if you know the signs of a heart attack, you are less likely to need the music to tell you that the situation is serious because you’d recognize it in how the person was behaving. Sometimes the competence you need is not found in one person. Perhaps you need more than one or even something else (e.g., computational ability competence from a computer)
Time. All tasks require time. But no task exists in a vacuum. Other tasks must also be done, all competing for time. How can we provide the necessary planned and unplanned time to do them all? And what happens when we can’t do them all? How are we going to manage the trade-offs? Do people know how to prioritize amongst varying goals?
Space. All tasks require space to do. Diagnosing a heart attack does not take much space. Using a crane requires much more space. How much do you need?
System State Information. This is where things can get very complicated. By this I mean knowledge of the state of the system. What we are looking for is information about what the situation is. In the case of the clip above, the music gave us an added clue that this situation was not a funny one but rather a serious one. Some systems are designed to help deal with issues of time or competence but have the unintended consequence of reducing our knowledge about what’s going on. Automation is a big culprit in this area, where the system will act in ways that make it hard for operators to know what’s happening. Additionally, we have this problem whenever we have processes that define “safety” by the absence of accidents. They may influence people to think that the system must be safe if they go long periods without an accident, which may or may not be true.
Cognitive Processing. Humans process things in specific ways, and not always how we think they should (which is ironic), so how we provide information changes what people think about the situation and how they act. How information is conveyed to people is critical, whether it is visual or verbally. Read a Don Norman book if you want a primer on what this is about.
Cognitive Load. There’s a reason why people turn down the music they are listening to when they are looking for an address. Our minds can only process so much at any given time. Telling people to pay more attention doesn’t really work. We need to create a system that makes it easy to pay attention to the most critical things in the moment. And remember, there are always a multitude of things that could be drawing our attentional resources at any given moment.
Social System Influence. It is critical to note that none of the above happens in a vacuum. Humans are social creatures, and everything we do exists within a network of social systems exert influence on what we see and do. What something is, what behaviors are or are not appropriate, what we can and cannot say, and who has the power to make these determinations are socially determined. We ignore them at our peril.
It is also worth noting, as David Wood notes, the capacities needed for normal operations are likely quite different from, and likely compete with, the capacities required to operate in situations of high stress or pressure. But identifying that, first of all, capacities are what we actually manage (not risk per se), and identifying the specific capacities required to deal with both known and unknown situations to do work provide us with better ways to manage safety and operations. It takes a lot of work and thought, and you are never really done because situations are constantly changing. However, in doing this, we actually get at the essence of what safety and operational resilience are really about.