What is it good for?

DSCN5808fIf I am asked ‘what is it that I love about safety’ my response is ‘the ability to be creative’.  There is a huge scope to be creative when working in safety.  Coming up with solutions, thinking of different ways to present information, creating interactive activities, thinking of ways to generate discussion.  The possibilities are endless.  But that can also be a problem.  Let’s assume that you believe in working outside the box.  That you believe that safety shouldn’t be constrained by preconceived ideas about what you must and mustn’t do.  Where do you start?  What do you then do when you are staring at a blank piece of paper?

There are a bunch of things that I find useful when approaching ‘safety differently’.  Most of them are to do with using a different language when discussing safety.  But the thing that I find the most useful when it comes to focusing my attention (as well as opening up people’s minds) is to be outcome focused.

Let me give you an example.  I was discussing Standard Work Instructions (SWIs) with a safety manager.  His view was that you could not operate a site without them.  I asked him to explain to me what outcome he was hoping for as a result of rolling out the SWIs.  He rattled off a number of reasons for SWIs including having documented instructions, assessing high risk tasks and training people in the right procedures.  Of course none of these are outcomes.  The conversation continued for a while and I kept asking what outcome was he hoping for.  Finally he said that he wanted the people to use equipment without injuring themselves.  What a breakthrough!  We were then able to have a conversation.  There could be a million different things that we could do to work towards that outcome.  And written work instructions may not have given us the best possible chance of being successful.  Sometimes safety professionals become fixated on what they are doing and don’t step back to ask why they are doing it in the first place.  That is, the result they hope for as a result of implementing what it is that they are advocating.

My overriding goal is to support people in being successful.  But without understanding what it is that they are trying to achieve I can’t hope to support them to the best of my ability.  Often there is more than one desirable outcome.  This is certainly true when there are a number of stakeholders who’s expectations must be taken into account.  Saying that, I generally find that the number of outcomes is small in number and, even if they are competing, there are ways of coming up with solutions.  Generally speaking at a work site level, a successful outcome is to produce a required quantity of product to the specified standard by a certain time for a certain cost.  From a safety context success implies that this task is completed without an injury.  But when an issue crops up I still talk to people about the outcome that they are trying to achieve, not about how an injury could be prevented or avoided.  Through this discussion you can identify bottlenecks, inefficiencies or simply things that could be done better.  When then discussing solutions you can pose the question, will this give us a better chance at achieving our outcome.  In this way you can prevent knee-jerk reactions and unnecessary implementation of ‘controls’.  I find over and over again that it opens up discussion.  Sometimes people give you the answer that they think the safety person wants to hear.  Once you say to them that ‘I am not sure that this is the best way to achieve the outcome’ (in other words, that is only going to create unnecessary work that will not make a difference, or, you are only making a rod for your own back) then that is when the good ideas start flowing.

Being outcome focused also helps with explaining to people why they have been asked to do certain things.  Most organisations are faced with situations when they need to create documentation or provide evidence to an external party.  This may be a perfectly valid thing to do in order to achieve an outcome that relates to external stakeholder expectations.  Say, for example, that a company’s safety management system is certified as a way of demonstrating to others that it is of a certain standard.  In order to make it easier to demonstrate compliance when audited, certain activities may be documented.  While the documentation may not add value in other ways it may be the best way to achieve the outcome of achieving external stakeholder expectations and in turn be good for overall business.  If this is the case, explain to those people who have to complete the documentation, record minutes, fill out forms etc the outcome that they are helping to achieve.  I find that if people understand why they have been asked to do something and it makes sense to do so, that things are much easier.

I was discussing this approach with a friend the other day and he asked ‘How do you know if when you have correctly identified the outcomes?’  This question is similar to the question that gets asked when trying to identify the root cause of an incident.  Where do you stop?  To answer this question I have two pieces of advice:

  • Don’t replace one fixation with another.  What I mean by that is, don’t get too hung up on identifying or understanding the desired outcomes.  The reason for identifying outcomes is to provide a reference or framework for decision making.  It is an alternative reference point to legislation, accepted ways of doing things, safety management systems, zero harm etc.  While the outcome is important, it is more about taking off the blinkers and opening up the discussion.
  • You will know when to stop when the conversation changes.  When you engage in a conversation on the outcomes that a person is trying to achieve there comes a point when the conversation changes.  People become more engaged and the discussion becomes more productive and focused on solutions.  It may also become more about possibilities.

So next time you are discussing a problem or coming up with a solution or an initiative, stop.  Take a step back and ask yourself (or the people that you are working with) what is the outcome that we are trying to achieve.  I think that you will be pleasantly surprised.  Once you are clear on the outcome it makes it easier to open up your mind.  It also makes it easier to decide on what solution or initiative to pursue.  I know that I prefer to ask ‘why not do it this way’ instead of saying ‘because we have to do it this way’.

On the flip side, if you can’t clearly explain what outcome you are helping to achieve when you are advocating a solution or initiative, then stop what you are doing.  If you can’t clearly explain to someone how their ‘non-compliance’ with a process is hindering success then don’t even start that conversation.  Go back to the drawing board and challenge yourself to start at the beginning.  I find that once you frame a discussion or an idea in terms of the outcome that you are hoping to achieve it is a far more easy, engaging and productive discussion.  And who knows, you may come up with a solution that you would not have otherwise thought of.

4 thoughts on “What is it good for?”

    1. Hi Andrea. I don’t really think that it matters what we call it. If it makes sense to talk about goals then do that. I use the word outcomes in the context of having a discussion with a person about what they are doing. That is, what are they hoping will happen as a result of what they are doing. In this approach it makes sense to me to be outcome focused. The main thing as that the conversation and thought process is initially focused on the why instead of jumping straight to what.

  1. Zinta,
    Good post. I really empathise with your frustration about people confusing outcomes/goals and methods. We see this in student research, too. People are generally good about their top level goal, but then they’ll have sub-goals such as “Perform a literature review”, “Conduct an Experiment”. Even when it is the best or only activity for achieving the desired outcome, understanding the goal is important for conducting the activity usefully. It may be that Standard Work Instructions were useful for that site, but there’s a big difference between “we’ve got SWIs because we have to have SWIs” and “we’ve got SWIs because we want to plan out a good and safe way to do things before we get stuck in to the work”.

    Of course you are also right that separating goals and methods frees us up to find new and better ways of achieving the outcomes.

    1. Hi Drew. Thank you for your comments. It was a post that I wanted to share as a method that works for me. I also find that it is a way to stay open minded. As you say, SWIs may be useful. Through this approach you neither throw the baby out with the bath water or stay married to your past approach.

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