Strategic Business Plans, hierarchically driven – who are the real experts?
by Dennis Millard
When companies develop safety plans for work scopes, they tend to utilise who they consider to be the experts for the task. Even today we notice key managers, leaders and safety personnel are the ones mainly relied upon to develop such plans and tasks. It is not often that prior engagement and communication is had with the labouring staff members who will be the ones to carry out the tasks.
I remember on a large scale construction project, I was carrying out a site tour with a Safety Manager, when we came across a work group who were performing tasks. We stopped to ask what it was they were doing. In response the workers said, “trying to work out this crap written on a bit of paper.” When we asked what seemed to be the problem, they said, “ no consideration for the real task risks are evident and there are many steps on the document that we simply can’t do the way its said they should be done, as there are other work fronts in our area which totally changes the way we would do the task.” They also had time pressure in front of them and when they raised the issue to management, they were told to stop making excuses to delay and to just follow the task plan. Even the safety manager whom I was with could not see a problem at first as he was one of the contributors to the document and felt they were trying to make an issue out of nothing.
I learnt that they always used the site’s hierarchy to develop job plans and the only time the workers were engaged was on the day they were to carry out the task. Due to time pressures and the hubris mentality, driven by the so called experts, the workers were placed at more risk, there was no consideration for ambiguity on this site, equivocality was rife. When we discussed the issues with the workers and listened to what they really had to say, as well as their solutions, the job was stopped by the safety manager who felt embarrassed as the new suggestions from the workers made sense.
Sensemaking is really hard to grasp if we do not consider the worldview of others. One really important message for me here was the company had failed their people, leading them towards error by thinking the experts were in the upper levels of the hierarchical organisational chart. The real experts here are the workers who were about to carry out the task, “how can we get this so wrong time and time again.” Collective mindfulness is not a term the company or I had ever heard of, nor did I understand it fully, until I recently learn about Karl E. Weick’s twelve constructs for high reliability organising. How are we really managing safety in industry if we do not understand these critical constructs? How can we manage our strong safety biases, to allow us to learn these key concepts? Plans don’t plan for the unexpected; plans can make us more mindless, which was evident on this site safety tour. The managers on this site like most of us did not like ambiguity so filled in the uncertainty by telling the workers to just get on with it, “how often do we see this?” The way Weick defines high reliability organising now sits in the forefront of my mind, “consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviours” Weick (1970, p. 3).
I for one am certain that we cannot be resilient in safety when we are so driven by hierarchical ways, and do not even consider Sensemaking and collective mindfulness. This is one of many events I have diarised through my career journey, which I am sure we have all experienced similar. I truly believe we need to share Weick’s research, thanks to my studies in social psychology of risk, which is exactly what I am going to do. Sharing more advanced knowledge on how to manage and respect risk in social environments is critical to our industries success.