Making Sense of Safety Management Systems
Guest Post by George Stavrou – SH&E Manager. This was an assignment submitted as part of his studies at The Centre For Leadership, Learning and Risk
My car has started showing signs of ageing, signalling upcoming costly repairs. In other words, it’s time for a more reliable, economical and durable car.
So without losing much time, I visited a car dealer, found the model I liked, chose the colour, negotiated, settled on a price and happily signed the deal. The agent, after checking his delivery schedule, turned and said with great confidence: ‘Sir, congratulations, your new car will be ready for pick up in exactly two months’. ‘That’s great’ I replied, ‘just in time for my birthday, what a great present!!’
But while on my way home, I started thinking what if the car does not arrive on time? And not what I expect? Firstly I’ll be very disappointed to miss out on such a good present. Secondly, I don’t like depending on others, this would be impractical and inconvenient. Surely, I thought to myself, the agent will honour his promise and won’t let me down easily. Surely, reputable car manufacturers are well established in their ways to ensure their commitment is honoured?
But I have worked in manufacturing for most of my life, delays and mishaps are simply a common occurrence. Dealing with the unexpected, such as: shortage of supply, machinery breakdowns, industrial or health issues and more, is rather the norm than the exception. The commonplace is a steady stream of interruptions and recoveries. Smart leaders and managers need to allow sufficient redundancy so as not to let these disruptions hinder meeting customer expectation.
To overcome uncertainty, organisations tend to invest heavily on risk management strategies aiming to remove or reduce the impact of disruptions, that can undermine their performance and reliability. One of these strategies, is the implementation of international management standards such as the ISO9001 for Quality and ISO 45001 for Occupational Health & Safety. These standards are globally renown for providing organisations an assurance in delivering business objectives sustainably and instilling confidence on the product and service they provide to their customers. According to the International Standards Organisation, ‘a management system helps organisation improve their performance by specifying repeatable activities and processes that organisations are expected to diligently implement to achieve their goals and objectives’.
ISO Standards, in particular Safety Management Systems (SMS) standards, have spread across virtually all hazardous industrial activities and they represent now an essential reference point Inspired by business management methods, these programs explicitly describe the way an organisation should identify and manage risks under its leadership. Most formal SMS tend to describe a safety management strategy mainly based on: anticipation, predefined response, top down command and control of safety behaviour (Paries et al, 2018). This may sound a reasonable strategy, but what about managing unanticipated and unexpected events?
Undoubtedly, emerging situations and interruptions warrant an appropriate and timely response. When facing such situations, people tend to make enquiries and seek information from those who have the knowledge or the authority, allowing them to interpret events and clarify ambiguities in order to come up with a responsive action.
This interactive process is probably carried out naturally and habitually in most places, but always within the tolerances of internal organisation culture. Karl Weick (2009) makes this social interaction of discovery, interpretation and decision making more explicit and he calls it, the process of “organisational sensemaking”. According to Weick, Sensemaking is not a random construct, it is a structured process designed to assist maintaining social relationship in a coordinated manner to prevent equivocality.
The process is characterised by the following seven properties:
1) Social context
Organisational Sensemaking is a social activity and is influenced by the presence of others. It is interactive and relational, requiring mutual respect from people, even in disagreement, more trust than empathy and diversity of opinion instead of homogeneity.
2) Personal Identity
The interpretation of events is heavily influenced by the identity of people and their function in a setting. In the process of creating a meaning, various roles are assumed, such as that of a detective, local expert, science specialist, action coordinator and more. During Sensemaking, these roles are constructed and maintained as identities to facilitate organising and collective action.
People become to know what they have done only after they do it. Cognition is slightly behind action, with a delay that can sometime be measured in microseconds. The function and value of reflection is of paramount importance helping with understanding and interpretation of the emerging events.
4) Salient Cues
People tend to notice tiny indicators that help them form their own picture of what is happening. It is worth mentioning, that these cues are not equally noticeable. Individual biases or preferences and environmental condition, make certain cues more prominent and salient that others.
5) Sensemaking is Ongoing
Sensemaking occurs in a continuously flowing experience. People find themselves thrown in the middle of things and forced to act without a stability of what is happening. Sensemaking requires interrupting that flow and take a mental snapshot of events.
Sensemaking is about creating a coherent story, how events hang together with sufficient certainty and credibility. And since the story is based on certain cues, it could not possibly be complete. In Weick’s view, plausibility is more important that accuracy in this process, because plausibility moves people into action.
Enactment is the intervention that helps proving people’s understanding of a situation.
Like Sensemaking, enactment is also a continuous activity, with the capacity to make changes to which people have subsequently have to adjust.
It is worth noting that Organisational Sensemaking best works in an environment of trust and collaboration, where debate and criticism is welcomed as a form of learning and maturing with less reliance on predetermined processes. Organisations practicing Sensemaking, refrain from simplifying their processes but instead ensure their people understand the complexity of issues they face.
If Organisational Sensemaking is an important risk management process, then why it is omitted from safety assurance programs?
Paries (2018) is of the view, that SMS tend to follow a mechanistic model, based on bureaucratic ideal of organisational control, and the eradication of uncertainty through rational anticipation and planning. Sensemaking fits an organic model based on: resilience, trial and learning, adaptation to the unexpected and self-organisation capacities.
SMS seem to be silent about the organics social reality of an organisation. As we know, where there are people, there are always social interactions which naturally shape the organisational culture. These are inseparable from the dynamics that consequently influence the risk management capability of the organisation.
International management standards view a process as a set of interrelated or interacting processes that transform input into outputs. This simplistic idea of organisational process somehow may appear idealistic and impractical. According to Weick, real life has taught us that any information we receive is ambivalent which requires some effort by each one us to sharpen our understanding. Hence the importance of Sensemaking in helping reducing equivocality and ambiguity for managing emerging risks. (Weick, 2009)
SMS favour a clearly defined organisational structure with the aim to facilitate sound and rational decision making processes. However, they do not seem to recognise the relationships between the different parties and their impact on organising in the face of risk. On the other hand, all business leaders appreciate the value of good relationships and utilising trust as a catalyst for a productive and agile operation. The latter is also supported by Weick, who highlights the need to focus on relationships between interdependent entities, more than the rigid structure of command and hierarchy, particular in the face of a crisis.
To organise is to assemble ongoing interdependent action into sensible sequences that general create sensible outcomes. Note that Weick insists on the use of the word “organising” instead of organisation, to illustrate flow and movement in information and action. It is inappropriate to imply rigidity to organising. Weick argues that organising is an ongoing encounter with ambiguity, ambivalence and equivocality (Czarniawska, 2005). There is no binary stasis construct in organising.
In conclusion, it could be argued that management systems, whether they are quality or safety related, have their purpose in setting foundations for repeatable processes in an organising. However, it is also important that the capability and limitation of these systems, be recognised and understood. Management system strategies are based on anticipation, predefined responses, top down command and control of safety behaviour (Paries, 2018). They are often silent about the social reality of organising, interrelationships and managing the ambiguity and fluidity of real life events all of which influence risk management. When it comes to tackling emerging risks, in particular those with catastrophic consequences the process of Organisational Sensemaking is important.
Thinking about the arrival of my new car, I am hoping that the manufacturer has adopted Organisational Sensemaking in conjunction with their accredited quality and safety assurance programs. Once embedded in the the activity of organising, Sensemaking helps better interpreting unexpected issues and tackles them with wisdom and maturity. These traits, are not only utilised in averting catastrophic risks, but can also be applied to help resolving manufacturing, product design or other challenges effectively. Such a culture will undoubtedly create capability, risk intelligence and the appropriate work environment to produce cars, not only on time, but also to meet the real life expectations of people like me who purchase them.
Czarniawska, B. (2005) Karl Weick: Concepts, Style and Reflection, The Editorial Board of the Sociological Review 2005. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229725109_Karl_Weick_Concepts_Style_and_Reflection
Pariès, J. (2018). Comparing HROs and RE in the light of safety management system, Safety Science (March 2018). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2018.02.026
Weick, K. E. (2000) Making Sense of the Organization, Vol. 2. Blackwell, Oxford.
Weick, K. E. (2009) Making Sense of the Organization, The Impermanent Organization, Vol. 2. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, United Kingdom.