In Defense Of Not-invented-Here Thinking

fa·nat·ic noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

A couple of weeks ago a post I wrote found its way onto a LinkedIn Group discussion thread. The group in question is devoted to behaviour-based safety zealots who apparently enjoy telling each other how slick they are and how one methodology should be used at the exclusion of all others (or at least as the primary methodology)
This got me thinking about blind devotion to a methodology. And then I read an article that was yet another  criticism of Heinrich’s pyramid of risk. And then I read another article that defended Heinrich and asked if his critics might be too harsh in their comments.

And then it hit me,  the realization that growing  fanaticism, zealotry, and extremism is imperiling worker safety and enough’s enough. Here’s the bad news.  Working as a safety professional is hard.  There is no area of expertise that will make a one a safety superman, no single methodology that has a monopoly on making the world a safer place; there’s no panacea, no magic bullets, just hard work and dedication.

I know this isn’t exactly a epiphany—I’ve been warning people of the rising tide of people who place their ability to make money over the effectiveness of the snake oil that they continue to promote to people who don’t know any better—but it was none-the-less a fairly profound realization.

For those of you who don’t know, Heinrich was an insurance investigator who in 1931 wrote the book, “Industrial Accident Prevention: A Scientific Approach.” In this book, Heinrich asserted that  88 percent of accidents are caused by “unsafe acts of persons”.  Statistical analysis was in its infancy (at least in and industrial setting) and Heinrich’s risk pyramid: that is there is 330 accidents, 300 will not result in injury, 29 will cause minor injuries, and one will result in a major injury or a fatality.

What I realized was a) Heinrich was full of crap  b) it’s not his fault, and c) while he’s not all right, he’s not all wrong either.  His research methods and results are, after 6 decades or so, increasingly questioned.  But even if he didn’t fake his research (personally I don’t believe he did, at least intentionally) his methods, population, and conclusions were hopelessly broken.  The manufacturing environment in which he conducted his studies bear little to know resemblance to today’s workplace.  In those days, asking supervisors the causes of injuries was not likely to yield many answers that didn’t lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of careless workers.  I don’t disparage these supervisors or Heinrich; they reached the conclusion that any reasonable person of that period would have given their time and experiences.  But let’s consider the time,  in 1931 eugenics was considered legitimate science, Social Darwinism was one of the most popular social science theories.  Henry Ford was spouting White Man’s Burden, and Nazism and Marxism were both rising in popularity.  In short, there was a pervasive environment in which workers were believed to be little more than clever primates who once in awhile  could be expected to have the occasional lethal mishap.

In most parts of the world, we it is no longer acceptable to see workers as chattel. And if Heinrich were to have completed his study in these more enlightened times what percentage of worker injuries would be attributed to “unsafe acts of persons” aside from the zealots and fanatics who start with an answer (90%, 95%, etc.) and then conduct research to prove what they already believe.  Beware the man who conducts research the outcome of which can either preserve or endanger his livelihood.  If your livelihood depends on the world being flat, count on finding facts to support your need.  It’s human nature.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Heinrich had the right of it; let’s pretend that his findings were accurate and correct. All that would mean is that given his population his conclusions were sound.  It wouldn’t however, mean that his findings were universal truths.  It wouldn’t be applicable to all industries, all areas of the world, or people. And yet, people continue to promote one methodology as applicable in most cases, even when they aren’t.

This may sound like yet another attack on BBS;  it isn’t. While there is certainly a time and a place for Behaviour-Based Safety (I am accused of being so virulently anti BBS that I can’t see the value in it, this is a false charge, but one I suffer relatively cheerfully.) it is the height and breadth of  arrogance to assume, without investigation, that worker behaviour is the primary cause of injuries.  But then again, it’s just as arrogant to assume that the process is to blame.

For years I sold a process that I invented as a work for hire. SafetyIMPACT! was a fairly prescriptive methodology that yielded terrific results.  But what made it tough to sell was the “not invented here” push back.  I spent 6 years working on safety improvements in the automotive industry, but the first time I tried to sell SafetyIMPACT outside the auto industry companies responded with “this isn’t the auto industry” and then “this is aerospace” and then “this is healthcare” and then “this is mining” and then…well you get the picture.  I always sort of rolled my eyes and thought these narrow-minded goofs just don’t get it; that they just didn’t understand that they weren’t that special, not that unique.

So I modified my style.  I turned the system I developed into a structure diagnostic tool that in one year would assess the situation, use the methodologies most appropriate to the situation, and build an infrastructure that would work for the organization.  After 15 engagements without a single failure I began to think that I had all the answers, that I had developed the magic bullet.

Last week I realized I was wrong.  I realized I didn’t have all the answers, in fact I didn’t have many answers at all.  I realized that all those people who refused to buy my snake oil were right; I don’t know who they are and I don’t know their specific challenges.  But if that was the case why was I so wildly successful? Because the key to success lies not in knowing what the organization needs, but in knowing that you don’t know what an organization needs and that you will have to research the situation.  You need to invent it here.

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