Want to Make things Safer? Take More Risks.

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By Phil LaDuke

I don’t write for a living; in fact, all the writing I do I do for free. That has more to do with me retaining my rights to the intellectual property than it is to with any sort of altruistic intent. I mention this, because after over 50 published articles and around 250 blog posts I have created the impression that I am primarily a writer; someone who watches the industry and spouts largely academic opinions about work that I don’t really do, that I somehow l lack standing.

As surprising as it is to some, I actually DO work in the field. My particular niche lies in organizational change relative to worker safety and helping companies build a robust safety infrastructure (what point is there in implementing a safety change intervention if there is no means to sustain it long-term?) I begin the process of a safety change intervention (or infrastructure build) by talking to business leaders about their visions—what do they want to accomplish with their worker safety management system. Recently I have noticed a trend: business leaders tend to say they want to be the best, to be world class; and then they are almost obsessive about what “everyone else is doing”.

You Can’t Make an Omelet without Breaking Some Eggs

Becoming the best involves innovating, and innovation involves risk; a great deal of risk. But unless you take the plunge and move outside your comfort zone you will always be following the leader, and nobody ever won a race—or became the best at anything—by watching the leader and doing your best to match his or her every move. The people and companies that become the best do so not by following the leader but by experimenting with things that have never been done. Years ago I was working with a large international company who was at the forefront of culture change relative to safety. My working contact was something of a perfectionist who continually fiddled with the process in an attempt to get things exactly right. The executives above him grew impatient and wanted to implement what my contact considered a half-baked (and by that I mean mostly done, but not quite “there” yet) solution. When my contact protested that the solution wasn’t ready to be implemented, the executive responded by saying that we are operating in uncharted waters and even if we were to wait until the solution was perfect in our minds we couldn’t really know with any certainty if it would work. He said we needed to go with what we had and if it didn’t work we would try something different. My contact saw implementing too early as undermining the solution, essentially an opportunity to fail, but the executive saw failure as an opportunity to learn, and reasoned that the sooner we learned these lessons the better. I learned a lot from that executive.

Benchmarking Isn’t Copying

Years ago I taught classes in benchmarking, and I can assure you that benchmarking is one of the most misunderstood business concepts out there. True benchmarking involves taking a concept from outside your industry and applying it in a new and innovative way to what you do. People often mistake competitive analysis (the practice of evaluating the things you in comparison to the practices of others in your industry). The difference may not seem to be a big deal, but it really is. Benchmarking involves putting a new and different twist on a practice outside your industry or discipline but competitive analysis is another gradation of follow the leader. Benchmarking gets the creative juices flowing and spurs new ideas and breakthroughs.

The Journey is Sometimes More Important than the Destination

The trial and error of innovation can hone an organization’s problem solving skills, investigative abilities, and transform the culture from one asks “what is it?” to one that asks “what could be?” Learning from failure is becomes a habit in organizations that embrace risk taking and innovation and in safety we must learn from our failures to ensure that we don’t repeat tragedy after tragedy.

The Blind Leading the Fearful

So what does this mean for safety? I understand how ridiculous it is to expect safety professionals, who—not to stereotype, but let’s face it—tend to be a risk averse group to take more risks. But as Dr. Robert Long says, “risk makes sense”, and when it comes to safety we really need to stop reswizzling the same old tired snake oil and take real risks. We need to see what we can learn from management systems, lean principles, quality operating systems, and a host of other functions. We need to benchmark, and experiment, and generally turn safety on its ear. We will fail, and in failure we will learn a better way to keep our workers safe in our specific environments. Safety has plateaued in many respects and if we don’t shake things up we run the risk of losing ground.

 

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