Columns / Systems Thinking

It’s really not so complicated

Focus on the system, not the “sinner”

March 7, 2013
During the past 40+ years, safety panaceas have produced degrees of temporary success and expensive failures.  One of the most hotly debated is behavior-based safety (BBS).  I contend the application of BBS is difficult to sustain over a long period of time and, frankly, becomes boring to those saddled with applying its methods to the workforce.  I have often witnessed BBS fall prey to an easy excuse for blaming the worker.

The great variable: people

For me, people constitute the greatest variable we encounter at work and at home. All of us experience our lives in so many ways, it is virtually impossible to keep track of all the contributing factors that enhance and interfere with our lives. So what makes us think BBS is a panacea to get everyone behaving in the same fashion given certain situations?

Does safety need to be as complicated as some of us tend to make it? Here are safety rules presented to me years back on an oil rig: 1) pay attention to moving equipment, it is much less forgiving than you are; 2) we all watch out for each other, so I expect you to learn how to watch out for your crewmates because they are looking out for you; 3) don’t get hurt, because we don’t want to do your job and ours; 4) we all want to go home to our families with all our fingers and toes; and, finally, 5) have a little fun. Welcome aboard, now let’s get to work.

Rather than complicating matters, consider a simple approach that focuses on the system.

“We can’t blame individuals…”

Managers I have encountered in my career are most interested in figuring out how to get their people to do stuff safely. Recently, John Wenger  wrote a column for The Systems Thinker that captured the essence of getting people to do stuff without harping on their “problem behaviors.”  The key to his approach focuses on working with employees as a whole person and working with their whole system (family, friends, peers, environment). He focuses on understanding the systems to the organization and organizational change, not merely the individuals within them.2

Wenger notes, “We can’t blame individuals for doing what the systems expect them to do.  People behave in ways that surprise themselves and that sometimes goes against what they know to be right and true.”  We need to work on the whole system.  So how do we do this?

Wenger provides a three-phase approach, which can readily be applied to safety.3

Phase One: Eliminate Systems Blindness

Ask a small group of supervisors to open their thinking. Why do their employees tend to not follow the safety rule, despite hours of training? Listen for and note patterns and themes that surface; they are descriptors of the system.

Wenger points out supervisors are beginning to learn the patterns of behavior that are at play, which ultimately describe their workplace cultural characteristics. Patterns might include:

  • Pressure to complete work without planning the job ahead of time.
  • Lack of self-discipline when it comes to safety work practices.
  • Failing to take accountability for actions.
  • Blaming others for having to work unsafely.
  • Taking short-cuts by eliminating safety steps to complete the job.
  • A lackadaisical attitude toward safety work practices.
  • Considering safety practices as optional.

Wenger explains behaviors at work are tempered by the systemic norms at play also known as the culture.  Stop blaming the people for what the system asks them to do. Concentrate your attention and energies on the system and not on the individual behaviors of individual people.

The next step in Phase One is to inquire what the group has tried to do to stop unsafe actions.  Again Wenger says listen for patterns.  Examples might include:

  • “I scheduled another one-on-one to go over the safety procedures, but something came up.”
  • “I visited with him about the safety rules before, but it seems it did not make a difference, so what is the point in trying again.”
  • “Gee, the guy has been here 20 years and knows how to work safely. Why should I have to keep telling him over and over again?”
  • “My guys are like a bunch of children, I have to keep on them incessantly, otherwise nothing gets done.”
  • “My conversation with him on safety took hold for about a week, then he returned to his short-cut ways again and I am not sure what to do.”

Note the similarity in patterns to what the supervisors said about their employees earlier.  In essence, they are doing the same thing. They are part of the same system, which is exerting its influence on the supervisors.

At this point, the supervisors begin to see the blind spots in the systems to which they belong.  It is these blind spots that create the frustration we have with ourselves and with others.

Phase Two: Create the Vision

Wenger’s second phase involves creating the vision of what you want.  Once supervisors understand “culture” and the influences it has on them and their people, they are ready to create a vision of the culture they want.

Wenger asks questions like, “What is your purpose?”  “What does your business exist for?”  “How would you like it to be here?” 

According to Wenger, rather than seeing themselves as victims of awful things employees do, supervisors are ready to recast their roles as stewards of the system.  This is the paradox of systems thinking.  Supervisors learn they are not “managers-who-need-to-be-in-control,” but are “leaders-who-guide-the-culture.”

They can use the things over which they have control (e.g., policy, procedures, resources, their attitudes, their interactions with employees) to generate a more effective and efficient culture.

Phase Three: Grapple with the “How-to”

Wenger’s next phase directs attention on figuring out the means for creating this new “culture.” Some managers fear a loss of power.  But the opposite occurs.  Power is gained in guiding the culture, making it more self-reliant, responsible, accountable, flexible, confident, resourceful, and learning from mistakes.

 

References

 1  Wenger, J. 2012. “It’s Not a Behavioral Problem: It’s The System” in The Systems Thinker. 23.9:8-10. November, 2012. Pegasus Communications, Inc. Westford, MA.
2  Ibid. pp. 8.
3  Ibid. pp. 8-10.

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