August 21, 2015
“What if we spent a lot less on measuring and parsing injuries and incidents and put that investment into building robust capability and response?”
Note: This is Part XI in a series of posts entitled "Evolving Beyond Behaviourism." To read Part X, please click here.
On July 27th in Perth, I had the pleasure of working and co-presenting with Professor Sidney Dekker of Griffiths University and Todd Conklin of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Together we led two lively discussions between several hundred managers and safety professionals from the resources industries in Western Australia.
Todd and Sidney have tremendous credibility and technical depth in modern safety management. Both spoke provocatively to concerns reflected in this blog and in their well-read publications: Safety is over-managed, retrospective, fault-finding, top-down- and numbers-driven.
The three of us led an exercise wherein the participants identified the silliest, most useless procedure to use as an example of the obsession with safety bureaucracy found in too many industries. The ensuing examples and discussions were as pointed as they were humorous, e.g., a sign on a toilet cautioning, “Do not drink the water!”
For me the most compelling dialogues we held with participants were:
Reflecting on these topics, I realize that as much as I respect the technical, investigative and critical capabilities of Todd and Sidney, I am struck more by their leadership. Todd brings an unflinching commitment to the perspective of the worker. Rather than viewing workers as misbehavers or prone to making bad choices, he is clear that workers just want to get work done, as safely as needed to do so. It is management’s responsibility to provide the pathways and capabilities for workers to perform safely.
Sidney is equally undaunted in his quest for true justice in the workplace. He espouses an ethic that assaults the typical response to injuries and incidents, the management of injuries and massaging of statistics, and even well-meaning initiatives like Zero Accidents, which mislead people into false beliefs or moralities about safety instead of improvement.
JMJ suggested that perhaps there was a bigger opportunity here. Rather than just reinforcing the rules, what might provide a better overall outcome?
So, I continue to assert that Safety is over-managed and under-led. Most companies are consumed with Safety Management and looking for the latest system or process upgrade. For them, Safety Leadership is somewhat useful, and then over-simplified to expressing care and visibly modelling desirable behaviors for others. Certainly these are important, but Safety Leadership is much more than a humane afterthought to serious management. Working with Todd and Sidney, it is their safety leadership that people are left with, more than their humor and technical capability. They challenge authority and bureaucracy, change mindsets, and bring deep ethical commitment to their extensive knowledge. People may have come to our talk looking for the latest safety development, but I believe they left inspired to act.
I believe that Safety Leadership is a set of awarenesses, capabilities and practices that comprise Context, Perspective, and Change Management. Underlying these is a stand for people and performance that embraces health, safety, the environment, and our communities in the course of achieving business goals.
Where do you and I stand in regards to safety? What is it that fuels your passion, gives you the credibility and persuasiveness to change how your organization works, reacts to errors or failures, and most importantly reduces the ongoing harm to people and the environment? Are you using that place to stand and provide leverage for your work? To make change, inspire and influence others? This is the work that is needed today.
Todd and Sidney each have found their place and even their bully pulpit! I learn much from my interactions with them, but the learning may be more from the influence they have on me to drive for change, serve the clients that my colleagues and I have the privilege to work with, and persist in transforming the short-sightedness and shortcomings in our industries. We can all lead Safety Differently.
I welcome your thoughts, and hearing what inspires you to lead and think differently about safety.