Work environments today are far more complicated than they were 45 years ago. Technological advances demand greater attention to detail. Are we reaching a point where there is just too much to remember?

Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt have just published their book entitled, “Simple Rules – How To Thrive In A Complex World.” They present a better way to tackle complex tasks and problems by developing a few simple rules of thumb.1   Even though the authors do not focus on the safety field, their framework can serve as a model for making safety decisions simpler in complex work situations.

Simplicity matters

Sull and Eisenhardt point out that “simple rules are shortcut strategies that save time and effort by focusing our attention and simplifying the way we process information. The rules are not universal – they’re tailored to the particular situation and the person using them.  Simple rules allow people to act without having to stop and rethink every decision.”2

How so?

Simple rules: 1) open individuals and organizations to pursue a wide range of possible opportunities; 2) establish a threshold level of structure without imposing too many restrictions; 3) focuses on only the most critical variables; 4) trigger people to act and stick to their original decision; 5) improve effectiveness when people are tired, stressed, or cognitively impaired; 6) allow workers to monitor each other and intervene when a fellow worker violates the simple rule; 7) produce decisions that outperform sophisticated decision models; and 8) increase odds that workers will remember, act, and stick to them over time.3

Rules for simple rules development

During an interaction with the Young Presidents’ Organization, Don Sull described what it takes to implement a strategy of simple rules using a three-step process: 1) figure out what will move the needles; 2) choose a bottleneck; and 3) craft the rules. 

Moving needles

What will move the needle when it comes to safety performance? Too often we become trapped in slogans -- Safety First, Think Safety, Zero in on Safety, etc. These are so generic they ultimately become meaningless to the worker on the floor. To avoid confusion, there must be a clear understanding of what the company is trying to achieve when it comes to safety.

I recall a VP of EHS at DuPont who was fixated on a slogan (The GOAL is ZERO).  He began promoting it across DuPont.  Meanwhile, I was transforming the EHS function within one of the strategic business units using interactive planning, a systems thinking approach, to deliver business value. Our team debated the value of adopting “The GOAL is ZERO” into our work.  We agreed the slogan did not inspire the team nor would it “move the needles.”  In our case, moving the needles meant figuring out how safety could add value to the business.

Identifying a bottleneck

How do you identify a bottleneck that prevents your organization from improving safety? Bottlenecks, according to Sull, share three characteristics: 1) they have direct and significant impact on value creation; 2) they should represent recurrent decisions rather than one-off choices; and 3) they arise when opportunities exceed available resources.4 A bottleneck must be a relatively narrow, well-defined process or process step, not a broad aspiration.5 Achieving the “GOAL is ZERO” is too vague and anything but a narrow, well-defined series of steps.

Here’s how safety can get too complicated:

• A company has safety processes that require significant man-hours in the field to accomplish, resulting in direct negative impact on overall production without any noticeable safety return on time invested. 

• An executive team spends tortuous hours deliberating over the classification of an injury and who to blame, resulting in a gigantic waste of valuable time. 

• A plant manager refuses to allocate the time and resources to implement an anonymous reporting system for employees to identify work-related hazardous or potentially hazardous situations.

Safety professionals know where the bottlenecks lie.  You might want to create multiple sets of simple rules depending upon the bottlenecks you find in different work areas with different work teams.

Crafting simple rules

When crafting the simple rules, Sull and Eisenhardt stress these specific steps: 1) let the data trump opinion; 2) users make the rules; 3) rules should be concrete; and 4) rules should evolve. 

Data trumps opinion

More often than not, a leader’s new rules are based on recent events and personal bias with no attention given to historical experience or anomalous data.6 Know the bottleneck you’re focusing on, and review data surrounding incidents associated with that bottleneck to craft your simple rules.

Users make the rules

The authors strongly recommend leaders establish a team that includes workers who will be expected to follow the simple rules. Workers closest to the action will be inclined to craft usable rules. They will strike the right balance allowing for greater discretion for decision making. They will use language they understand verses business lingo. Greater ownership and buy-in come from workers participation in the process, and participation will provide for better translation among fellow workers who did not participate.7

Rules should be concrete

Using detailed analysis tools to create the rules is fine, but be sure the rules are easy to grasp especially at the level they are intended to be used.  Simple rules for safety situations may be limited to yes-no criteria. A more flexible safety simple rule should lead to raising a question for discussion before undertaking a task.  Avoid using vague business terms in crafting your safety simple rules.8

Rules should evolve

Rules need to be field tested to allow for adjustments.  And no rules last forever.  Set checkpoints to evaluate the continued relevance and value of the simple rules so course corrections can be built into the simple rules system.  Simple rules need to accommodate the changing aspects of the work environment.9

Many corporations’ safety rules are housed in a fat three-ring binder on a book shelf. Sull’s and Eisenhardt’s strategy promotes lively conversations with your work force to identify critical safety bottlenecks and craft simple safety rules to improve safety and business performance.

1  Sull, D. and K.M. Eisenhardt. 2015. Simple Rules – How To Thrive In A Complex World. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co. NY, NY.

2  Ibid. pp. 5.

3  Ibid. pp. 29, 31, 34, 36, 37, 42, and 44.

4  Ibid. pp. 131.

5  Sull, D. and K.M. Eisenhardt. Simple Rules in a Complex World. In the Harvard Business Review. 90(9) 69-74. September 2012.

6  Ibid. pp. 72.

7  Op cit. pp. 138.

8 Ibid. pp. 74.

9  Ibid. pp. 74.