Who Said We Don’t Need Systems?

What a strange sense of logic to fixate on the absence of something (injury) as a demonstration of the presence of something else (safety). Such a proposition misunderstands the dynamic of risk and being human.

Who Said We Don’t Need Systems?

imageI find it interesting that when some people read what I write they don’t actually read or think carefully about what is being presented but rather ‘read into’ the article and impose whatever their agenda is. This is no more evident than when I discuss the nature of systems. At no time have I ever stated that we don’t need checklists or systems. What I do make clear is that the excesses of systems and checklists are counterproductive and dehumanize the risk and safety space. What I do say is that the excesses of risk aversion make us less risk intelligent. What I do say is that the fiction of absolutes must lead to the dehumanization of people.

In my risk and safety maturity matrix I make it clear that the beginning steps to maturity are technical, mechanistic and focused on controls. There is no doubt that these red steps are effective and foundational however, if safety people want to mature in the way they engage others and organisations in safety, they need to step up past these foundation steps. I find it fascinating when I hear people speak of safety leadership or risk maturity that they mean marking time on the fifth step, the systems step. One only has to look at the emphasis in safety curriculum in diplomas and degrees, conferences and agenda of alerts, magazines and associations to see that the safety industry loves marking time on the top red step.

For those who are not familiar with my Risk and Safety Maturity Matrix, I have superimposed the culture framework of Prof. Patrick Hudson on the left to correspond to the steps to maturity (see Safety Culture – Theory and Practice). So, marking time on the fifth red step is where many safety people and organisations get stuck. They remain ‘calculative’ and many don’t know how to really step up and away from this fixation with data and counting, as if such are cultural measures. What a strange sense of logic to fixate on the absence of something (injury) as a demonstration of the presence of something else (safety). Such a proposition misunderstands the dynamic of risk and being human.

So, let’s not get hung up on systems, let’s get beyond drinking mothers milk and get into some grown up food. This is not to say that mother’s milk is not nutritionally effective, but when we mature into adulthood we no longer get stuck thinking baby food is all there is to eat.

So once we get a hold of systems, policy and procedures what’s next? You will see the next steps move us into Proactive and Generative modes of knowing and enacting. As we step up to risk and safety maturity we don’t need to hang on to the basics nor the false security of data and injury statistics. Rather, we need to engage in more social, psychological and humanizing approaches to risk and safety. As we take steps to mature in risk and safety we need focus less on controls and learn how to influence others to risk and safety ownership by the way we view the risk and safety challenge. If we stay in the data space risk and safety will remain all about objects, hazards and controls. When we move up the steps that humanize others and respect others, we learn to empower others and influence an organisation to the move up to the bold journey to become ‘world class’ in risk and safety. Many organisations that portray themselves as being ‘world class’ simply mean more vigilant marking time on the fifth calculative (red) step.

Figure 1. Human Dymensions Risk and Safety Maturity Matrix


So what needs to be done to mature (grow up) in risk and safety?

1. The first thing we need to understand is the process of maturation involves letting go and this incurs some growing pains. Nothing is more fearful for maturity than the dynamic of fear itself.

2. The second activity we need to engage in is doing some looking and unlearning, as a baby mobility by crawling seemed pretty good at the time but walking and running are much more effective. Learning how to listen and observe are the first steps to take to move beyond the delusions of control and compliance by ‘telling’.

3. You will notice the words on each step as they ascend. These are programs Human Dymensions deliver in order to assist organisations take the risk and safety maturity journey.

4. The third understanding is coming to grips with the fact that most decision making is undertaken and influenced in the unconscious. This realization alone should help move beyond rationalist-only response to risk and move us into more human approaches to risk.

5. Once we have made these early moves to grow up in risk and safety we then need to learn how to walk and talk with others in dialogue and mutual consultation.

6. The fifth step in the maturity process involves a whole new reframing of how we SEEK to engage others, investigate workplace events and understand why and how things go wrong. In this step we move beyond the nonsense of scientific objectivity and understand how we participate in investigations and attributions in risk and safety events.

7. The next step is challenging in the whole way we ‘think’, moving beyond the rationalist-only understanding of people to observing and listening to the social and psychological dynamics that shape and drive organizational safety culture. Mechanistic thinking and regulatory-only thinking shapes our engagement with risk and safety as linear and formula-like. Until we understand that risk and safety are wicked problems we will continue to see solutions as a simple process of policing compliance. When we understand risk and safety as a ‘wicked problem’ we embrace a new way of ‘tackling’ the risk and safety challenge.

8. The step to risk intelligence is next, understanding that the denial of uncertainty, fragility and bounded rationality keep organisations and the workforce in the risk aversion and ‘dumb down’ space. When we engage more in thinking about managing the unexpected, then we truly understand the challenges and fluidity of risk.

9. The final steps in maturity involve new steps in leading and care. The key to leading is not the characteristics of the hero but rather a better understanding of following and followers. When we move from the delusion that we can control others to the realization that others find motivation and meaning in self regulation, then we can better influence the cultural and sub-cultural challenges that beset us.

Of course, this pathway to maturity is a daunting task because one never arrives, when you get to 85 and have accumulated the wisdom of such years one realizes even more what one doesn’t know. The overconfidence and hubris of ‘having arrived’ is one of the most challenging dispositions in the journey to becoming ‘world class’ in risk and safety. So what is the purpose of systems? Systems teach us what we need to let go of and where we need to step next.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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