Good Luck to the Luck Deniers
How was Donald Horne to know in 1964 that when he wrote a simple little book called The Lucky Country he would sell over 2 million copies? That was lucky, a case of the right book at the right time. The book describes Horne’s understanding of what it means to be Australian. Later in 1978, Ronald Conway was to write Land of the Long Weekend, and captured similar sentiments about the Australian psyche. It too sold well as Australians sought to know themselves in the post World War II and Cold War era.
In many ways Australians are a nation of punters (gamblers). One of our favourite cricket captains was called ‘punter’ (Ricky Ponting) and Australians spend $65 million on the Melbourne Cup alone and put more than $10 billion through poker machines each year. So the story goes, Australians would bet on two flies climbing up a wall. It seems unAustralian to not believe in luck.
The idea of circumstance, fortune, misfortune, randomness, uncertainty and luck are not in vogue these days, especially not in the safety industry. Gone are the days of soothsayers and witch doctors who could pronounce doom and gloom on the turn of a bone or leaf. Gone are the days when one believes in prayer. As the philosopher Alain de Botton tells us in The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, modern scientific society can no longer stand the idea of non-control. We live in the days where you ‘make your own luck’, a tidy phrase used by the fortunate to blame the poor and disadvantaged. You only have to spend a few hours at the Wayside Chapel (http://www.thewaysidechapel.com/) in Kings Cross Sydney to quickly dispose of that illogical and discriminatory idea.
Luck is anything that is beyond our control. Risk is defined as the effects of uncertainty on outcomes (AS/NZS 31000), and one thing fallible humans learn quickly in life is that nothing is certain. Risk and luck, uncertainty and opportunity are closely connected. Everyone seems to know this, except for the luck deniers. For the rest of us we know that one wins at a gambling by luck or wins lotto by luck. We know that sometimes, when many odd things align by circumstance and chance, and an unusual opportunity comes our way, we say we were lucky ‘against all odds’. We know there was little choice about where and when we were born. Research shows that birth date increases the likelihood of selection for elite sporting teams (based on age and size at peak times in high school development). Some of us know that cancer seems to visit people at random, vehicle accidents happen at random, opportunities and rare moments seem to happen, just ask Princess Mary of Denmark. Little did the Hobart born girl know that a quiet drink at the Slip Inn pub in Sydney in 2000 would consummate the commoner to princess fairytale.
People with ‘risk intelligence’ know all about probability, luck and risk. The goal for the professional in risk and safety is not to make risk the enemy but to develop intelligence about the management of risk. Those with risk intelligence don’t deny luck but know that Risk Makes Sense. Dylan Evans suggests in his book Risk Intelligence, that a dose of gambling helps improve and mature risk intelligence. Probability is all about the ratio of risk to outcome. Bankers and insurers calculate and act upon (gamble) assessments of risk and probability, but as with the last Global Financial Crisis (GFC), they got that one wrong. The GFC demonstrated just how much human emotion and the psychology of risk is a factor in business risk. Business risk is about probability and uncertainty,
We sometime speak about the odds being in our favour. We talk sometimes in terms of ‘fate’ and inevitability. Humans usually attribute luck to rare and an unusual sequence of events and, attribute bad luck when another sequence of events delivers a poor outcome. This proves little more than humans are frustrated with the lack of control in living. It’s why sometimes we talk about doing things on a ‘wing and a prayer’.
Some people don’t like the idea of luck because it assumes there are events in life over which they have no control. There are some strange bedfellows in the luck denier camp. Perhaps the most prominent luck deniers are American televangelists. Texas seems to be the centre of the world for luck-hating fundamentalists. For the fundamentalist, luck is an evil myth and blasphemy invented to take god out of the life equation. For the luck deniers, there is no luck, all of life is determined and controlled. For the proponent of zero harm, luck is much the same. For the zero harm ideologue luck is language that inhibits the logic of their perfectionist goal. This is why I suggest that proponents of zero harm should set a much higher goal of zero death, it’s a goal that is only good for a life time.
Probability is all about statistics. Risk takers play with the odds. President Obama speaks constantly about Americans being a nation of risk takers. Obama knows that without innovation, creativity, learning and risk, America will fall behind the world. Obama knows that risk aversion is dangerous. The world expert on probability is Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman.
Kahneman discusses the important issue of ‘regression to the mean’ in his work Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). Kahneman was lecturing flight instructors in Israel and proposed the important principle: rewards for improved performance work better than punishment of mistakes. An instructor raised his hand and disagreed, he stated that when he praised cadets for a good maneuver, the next time their performance was actually worse. Then when he screamed at cadets for poor execution the next time they did better. Therefore Kahneman’s theory was incorrect in practice.
Kahneman disagreed. He stated, naturally the instructor would praise a cadet when their performance was above average. However, on the law of averages if someone is performing above average, it is likely that their next performance will be below average. It is possible that the cadet was just lucky in that above average performance. Similarly, if a cadet were berated for a poor performance, it would be likely that the next performance would improve on the next time due to the law of averages. The instructor has attributed a causal attribution to the fluctuations of a random process.
Humans tend to attribute patterns to random events and apply superstition to sequences of chance. Many sports people remember moments of above average performance and then attribute some circumstance to that moment. Most of our elite athletes are superstitious; they have routines, foods and actions they follow religiously in order to enhance performance (http://sportsmedicine.about.com/od/sportspsychology/a/superstitions.htm). Many athletes believe that favourite clothing or processes before playing somehow improve performance. This is how attribution works, we attribute favourable signals for when we win and circumstances in losing are forgettable. Gamblers rarely remember losses but many ‘near wins’. This is the same with what is known as ‘the lucky streak’, ‘the purple patch’ or the ‘cool hand’. People watch sports and attribute success or above average performance to certain players when in reality they simply perform below or above their average at random. Many people believe in lucky numbers despite the fact that drawing lotto numbers is completely random. When Apple invented the ‘Shuffle’ Steve Jobs responded to complaints that random tunes were played in patterns. Jobs came out at the next Apple convention and stated he had made ‘the Shuffle less random so that it felt more random’.
What does this all mean for safety and risk? Does this mean I am a fatalist, no, by no means, that would simply put me back into a binary understanding of risk and luck. Does this mean let’s do nothing about safety? How absurd, more binary thinking simply seeks entrapment in a narrow understanding of risk and safety management. The luck deniers are the binary thinkers with the tired old non sequiteur ‘how many people do you want to hurt today?’ or ‘can you make your own luck’? There is no human fallibility in the fundamentalist language of the luck denier. Those who acknowledge luck simply acknowledge that we are all working within the bounds of human fallibility. There is no great advantage in denying humanity but rather seek to maintain the best in risk and safety management without creating ‘smoke and mirrors’ or doing mental gymnastics just to maintain such illogical mantras such as zero harm or all accidents are preventable. The key to risk and safety maturity is not risk denial or risk aversion but mature risk taking.
When it comes to the keeping of statistics there are few better than safety professionals and company Directors. For the lovers of zero harm, counting each day is the focus. It would seem that nothing is more important to safety in this mindset than data entry. There is nothing more important than reaching zero each day. The fixation with safety statistics is endemic in such industries as building, construction and mining. The preoccupation with LTIs, LTIFRs, IBNR, LTFR, TFRLTIs and MTIs etc is a fixation with no equal. Yet, there is little connection between injury rates and culture. Counting statistics to achieve zero is a distraction from the process of analysis of culture and long term determinants of poor management of risk. Whilst safety people are so busy counting they leave untouched the eroding elements of a toxic culture.
On the day BP was celebrating 7 years without an injury on the platform of the Horizon One oil rig, an incident occurred killing 11 people, injuring many others and spurting 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. So much for what injury statistics provide by safety culture knowledge. So whilst BP were busy measuring data, they allowed an undercurrent of subcultures to run free such as overconfidence, arrogance, delusion, misdirection, hidden pressures on performance and spin of information. http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2012/November/12-ag-1369.html
Injury data is not a measure of safety culture.
Most organisations that put faith in data also seem to misbelieve that data is objective. So when a company tracks data, it is extremely difficult to know whether the incident could have been fatal or circumstantial, especially when calculative organisations unintentionally encourage dishonesty in reporting. The history in the ideology of zero harm is associated with the preoccupation with counting and believes that the keeping of numbers is the foundation for safety improvement. The BP Horizon One disaster soon disproves such a theory.
In the recent Getting Them Home Safely report in the ACT Building and Construction Industry (http://www.pdfdownload.org/pdf2html/view_online.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fcdn.justice.act.gov.au%2Fresources%2Fuploads%2FWorksafe%2FPublications%2FHandbooks%2FGetting_Home_Safely_report_-_Construction_Safety_Inquiry_Nov_2012.pdf) much was discussed about the need for culture change in the industry. A similar focus was taken in the Cole Commission resulting in the creation of the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Commission_into_the_Building_and_Construction_Industry) It seems every time a regulator or government body gets a concern about safety statistics in an industry they wave red flags about safety culture and leadership, then simply revert to the continuing burden of calculative safety systems as a solution to cultural problems. Yet at no time is the government challenged to prove any causal link between injury statistics and culture.
Interestingly, in the Getting Them Home Safely report there is no definition of culture but much is made of numerics and statistics. It is as if the very publication of statistics is thought to generate cultural change. One of the recommendations of the Getting Them Home Safely report sets a target of a 35% drop in safety statistics, what the report calls the ‘safety record’. The attribution of cultural attachment to a ‘safety record’ is arbitrary and speculative. Many statistics can just as easily improve by luck or changes in work load or technology. As sure as Kahneman was a mathematical expert there will be a natural regression to the mean. This is not to say that one should be complacent but rather safety leadership knows that there are ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’. In the ACT for example, there has been no fatality in building and construction in 6 months, a 100% improvement according to the safety record argument without any implementation of any recommendations of the report.
Unfortunately, the fixation on statistics in the safety industry is used to justify its own existence. Any challenge of statistics or statistic keeping is challenged as poor leadership or irresponsible. So it is that we are now overburdened with systems and counting as the norm for what it means to be employed in the safety industry. Some organisations have eliminated the word ‘safety’ entirely from their language and replaced it with ‘zero harm’. In such organisations one doesn’t practice safety, one practice zero harm. As long as this calculative mindset dominates the industry it will continue to confuse counting as safety and equate systems with culture.
Statistics are the preoccupation of the luck deniers. Each point scored in the negative is somehow their motivation to improve? Something like deciding who wins a sports competition by the counting of penalties. Well if a luck denier can explain how this is motivational, I’d say ‘good luck to you’.