Sensemaking and Signs
A while ago I wrote an article titled “It’s All in the Sign”. On reflection it is interesting that it generated two different lines of thought. The one line was about non-conscious communication and not overloading our minds and how that is helpful in us managing our everyday lives. The other related to signs themselves; particularly related to signs in the workplace and about how they are or are not helpful.
In this piece I am going to mainly concentrate on the issue of signs in the workplace. But first, because it is helpful in understanding the potential of signs to influence us, some revision on the non-conscious communication related to signs.
The use of the “sign”, in the original article, was initially meant to demonstrate the concept of semiotics (the study of the meaning and influence of the images, sounds, words, smells, tastes, symbols, actions and objects which make up our surroundings); the impact that signs have on our non-conscious communication and how it is critical to our overall means of communicating and “sensemaking” in the world.
Signs enable us to convey a vast amount of information (and potentially instruction); not by showing all the information it represents but by the “dumping” of huge quantities of information – what is referred to as “exformation“. Discarding information prevents us from becoming “flooded” with that which we don’t need in order to make a decision. It prevents our conscious mind from being overloaded and bogged down in details and allows us to just get on with the stuff of life.
Think about the mental images and information that sits behind a sign in a store window that says “Closing Down Sale”. Our first thought is probably – good thing, discounted prices, I might be able to pick up a bargain. But then we might wonder at what the shop owner was thinking when they put the sign up. Has the store been bankrupted; or has the owner decided to retire; or is the shop moving to another location; or maybe we could be reminded of a news headline, or article, talking about the store being bought-out by an overseas competitor. All of this “discarded information”, this exformation, that sits behind the sign, unseen and often unacknowledged, is very influential in our interpretation and decision making regarding the sign’s message.
So, what does this mean for signage in the workplace?
Some workplaces have at their entrances, proudly displayed standard mandatory signage for required PPE, usually including mandatory hearing protection. The conscious message being that hearing protection must be worn at ALL times. Most people would say that for noisy environments that is a good thing; it makes sense.
For those of us who inhabit construction sites, workshops and many factories – think about how many times the place is relatively quiet. Generally, in my experience, the loudest noise a lot of the time in a workshop, or construction site, is the radio hanging on the wall blasting out the local radio station “noise”. There are many other times: lunch breaks, after hours, shift change, scheduled shutdowns etc. where no noise of significance is being generated. So another conscious or unconscious image from the sign is that the message doesn’t make sense.
What do we do then when we need to enter the work area at those times? Do we still follow the “rule” imposed by the mandatory hearing protection sign, and wear our hearing protection to “comply” with the rule, or do we ignore it? Surely ignoring it is a violation of a safety rule and for many organisations that is a dismissible offence. Hmmm, effectively we are doing that which is required by the legislation, we do our risk assessment and conclude that there is no hazard to manage. That makes sense.
But given that we are walking past a mandatory sign, it then introduces the concept that is it sometimes okay to break the rules. It generates questions such as: which rules are okay to break; and when should we be able to break them; and who is allowed to break them?
The mandatory sign imposes a rule and we have chosen to violate it. Do we excuse that violation by stating the obvious, there is no noise to contend with, therefore there is no risk, and therefore the rule doesn’t apply? A lawyer would have a field day in a court defending an unfair dismissal claim coming up against that approach if someone was subsequently dismissed for breaking another safety rule – inconsistent application of your own safety rules is not going to be looked at kindly by the court.
The question of signs in the workplace is complex; as are most of our efforts to deal with risk. In a recent discussion with a client we talked about the signage around their site. He thought that they may need more signs around their workshops and other buildings. So I asked him why he thought that he needed more signs. His response was something like “well doesn’t the legislation say we have to have signs up”.
Now this site is not a hazardous facility site, with bulk fuels or chemicals and such, so the upshot of the conversation was that it very much depended on what the risks were and what the exposure was to his team. In the end our discussion was more centred on talking about risks rather than rules. When we talked about the legislation I reminded him that it isn’t about putting in rules, it is about establishing a culture where as best you can, you identify and control risks.
It was a different type of conversation when we started to consider exactly what the people were doing, how many of them there were, where they actually worked, how often they entered each other’s work areas, and how they might manage risks from noise, flying particles and heavy materials at various heights etc. We agreed that some signs were needed, but we also agreed that they should be worded such that they meant what the team needed them to say; the signs addressed the risk and the meaning that the team wanted to ascribe to them. In short the signs should make sense to those who may be impacted by them, while still taking into account the potential for visitors accessing the areas.
Just recently I was in a small commercial area where a shop was undergoing remodelling for a new occupant. Outside the shop was a fence restricting access through the area (fair enough) and on the fence was the obligatory blue and white mandatory safety sign saying that anyone in the area, I presume inside the fence and building, had to be wearing hearing protection – it was as quiet as a church and people also had to wear the ubiquitous high visibility outerwear – seriously in a shop fit-out? I wondered how much sensemaking was conducted in whatever passed for a site risk assessment on that job.
Signage in workplaces, should be looked at very critically, and should depend very much on the circumstances at the place and time. Applying a blanket rule will not meet any requirements, legal or practical. While I might be inclined to agree that “less is more”; I am much happier with making sure that signs, any signs, in a workplace actually apply and mean what they are meant to mean. The critical thing is very much what meaning (conscious and non-conscious) that we want the sign to carry and not some simplistic, lazy, blanketing, all purpose mandatory sign, which does not make sense, in many situations, to most people, much of the time.
As ever, I welcome your comments and thoughts and maybe a chat about making sense about signs.
Author: Max Geyer