Flooding is Dangerous, and I don’t Mean the Water….
Parts of the east coast of Australia have experienced heavy rain over recent weeks and it has become common to read headlines of flash flooding causing road closures, cars washed away and sadly a man in Sydney was killed when he was swept into a drain. The dangers of floods in our country are something that most us are familiar.
But there is another type of flooding which can be just as dangerous. A flooding that may not be obvious too us at first, a flooding that may seem normal even, and a flooding that is abundant in the safety and risk industry. This type of flooding has to do with the amount of information and paperwork that is generated and in particular how we go about sharing this information with people at work.
Take a second to think about the amount of safety information and paperwork at your workplace. You’ll think of procedures, of training records, risk assessments, incident reports, the list goes on. All this information that we expect people to recall at an instant and use when they make decisions and judgements so many times throughout their work day.
Induction programs are a classic example. I remember one induction I attended at a site that stored a significant amount of chemicals, it was a Major Hazard Facility (MHF). I was there to catch up with someone who worked in the canteen, they’d had an incident. Before I could enter the site and talk with the person, I had sit through a 5 hour induction program which included videos, a manual, people lecturing, a pocket booklet and of course a test. I was only planning on seeing this person for 20 minutes.
Now I understand the risk factors associated with a MHF, I mean one ignition source in the wrong area and goodbye Sydney! But I recalled little of what was covered in that induction program. Information about reporting, policies, procedures, “Golden Rules”, all the usual stuff. I was flooded with information. I guess they figured that if there was an incident, at least they had my signature on a piece of paper and a multiple choice test that I had passed sitting on a file and that would save them from being prosecuted.
If they had simply said to me, “we have some pretty serious hazards on this site mate, we need to escort you to and from the canteen, and we need to make sure you don’t have any ignition sources”, it would have saved me about 4.5 hours of time, not to mention all of the resources they put into the induction program. Flooding me with information didn’t make me safer, it actually made me fatigued!
This reminds me of a great segment I saw on the ABC’s The Checkout (ABC’s The Checkout on iTunes T&C”s). This segment was about how organisations flood us with information about their Terms and Conditions (T&C’s). One example is Apple iTunes T&C’s. Those of us who sign up to use Apple products, iPods, iPads, iPhones etc…. probably don’t realise that by agreeing to Apple’s T&C’s we agree we won’t use the iTunes to produce chemical or biological weapons! Just crazy stuff, organisations flood us with this information all the time, and I’m afraid to say, that we seem to do the same thing in the safety and risk industry too.
So why do we do this? Why do we provide people in our organisations with so much information that they just can’t take it in, they can’t remember it and they can’t deal with it?
I wonder whether the most common reason we flood people with information is because of fear. We are always being told by ‘experts’, particularly those in the legal profession that, “if it’s not written down, if you don’t have a record of it, it didn’t happen”. Can you imagine the amount of paperwork we would need to keep (perhaps you don’t even need to imagine!), if we were to keep a record of all actions we take, all conversations we had, and all of the things we do every day to work safely?
This fear associated with having to document everything we do, to flood ourselves, our people and our business with information, is crippling us, it is making us less safe. When we do this in our industry, we are ignoring the key principals of Bounded Rationality (see Wikipedia definition here), which is the notion that in decision making, rationality of individuals is limited by the information they have, the cognitive limitations of their minds, and the finite amount of time they have to make decisions. This means that we cannot possibly use all of the information that might be available to us and take all the time we would like to make a decision. We our ‘bounded’ by the limitations of our minds, we must often make decisions and judgements with the knowledge that is readily available to us. When we flood people with information through large numbers of procedures, risk assessments, forms and permits, we know that they will not be able to recall all of this information. Designing systems and processes that expect people to recall all of this information is asking for trouble, we just cannot do it.
So if we accept that flooding our people at work is dangerous, how can we go about avoiding it in our organisations? Here are just a few tips (I don’t want to flood you!):
- As hard as it is, resist, or at least question whether you need to put your procedures in writing. Ask the question, what value does it add? Does the person doing the job already know what they are doing? Is there another way for people to know the job?
- Focus on quality over quantity. Remember we are all limited by Bounded Rationality. In the example of my induction, if I was provided with the key ‘quality information’ I needed, like no ignition sources because I could blow up Sydney, I think I may have remembered that
- Learn about, and use the different styles of learning and educating that work best with different people. There is not one learning style or educating technique that will work well with everyone. People generally won’t learn well by reading procedures, they will learn by ‘doing’, by making mistakes and through coaching.
- Talk to your people, have real conversations, ask and listen rather then tell and instruct. If you get the impression people don’t know how to do the job safely, help them understand by showing, resist shoving a procedure in their face.