Safety journeys: Are we there yet?

file0001207248003There is a lot of talk about safety journeys these days. During a recent conference workshop, attendees were asked to mark where their organisations were along a ‘safety culture maturity scale’. Equipped with this ‘knowledge’ from asking ‘where are we now?’ and ‘where do we want to be?’ people could allegedly analyse the gap. But also, many managers and decision-makers make frequent use of ‘safety journey’ in explaining current and future developments. The journey is of course surrounded by a supporting travelling discourse: destinations, landmarks, milestones, navigation, path, onward and upward.

The idea is that by building on the strengths of previous ‘levels’ and gradually peel off weaknesses, organisations can incrementally move toward a ‘stronger and more resilient’ way of organising. Consequently, one should not jump from one stage to another but allow the process it’s ‘due time’. Managers and stakeholders interested in promoting a first class safety culture should therefore have a long term perspective. 2-5 years seems a reasonable estimate to ‘get there’.

Being on a journey has a seductive appeal. It carries the tantalising notion of a better and brighter future, that there is a ‘goal’ where organisations could finally arrive – the Jerusalem of safety perhaps. There’s no shortage of safety gurus describing desired destinations – a ‘just culture’, a reporting culture, to have an engaged workforce, etc. Such goals are of course attractive.

The notion of a safety journey rests on bureaucratic, plan-driven, sequential, predictive or prescriptive development ideals. In no way is this a unique approach to improve safety. Using rationality and reductionism to pursue an ideal order is frequently used in developing things that are relatively well defined, predictable, and unlikely to undergo significant change. The process makes logical sense – we are here, we want to be there, so we take steps in that direction and bring everybody with us.

To be fair, the safety journey metaphor brings one good thing: When people are on a journey they must to some extent abandon what they are used to, in favour of finding new ways of being and seeing the world. Talking about a journey thus potentially opens enclosed minds to at least reflect on the current situation and step out to see a larger pattern. By highlighting the potential of other ways, rigid situations may be unlocked and people can find a vision, connect with each other in new ways and find a common language to describe a better future – something relentlessly desired in the world of safety. Thus, an idea difficult to turn down.

I get bored and confused when asked to position my organisation on a safety maturity scale. Every organisation I’ve visited rely on systems, and simultaneously have pockets of generative brilliance. And when unwanted events occur, there may be ways of seeing and being in relation to safety that are inherently reactive. Any organisation is so many things at once. Ways come and go as needs arise. Whatever is, seems contextually dependent rather than a trait of the organisation. Whatever pattern is dominant at a given time has nothing to do with some sort of internal quality, or objectively passable landmarks. I could put the X all over the scale.

But such is not the exercise: Thinking along a scale or journey requires people to reduce complex, rich, diverse, ambiguous, simultaneous, messy, contradictory, and parallel patterns of thoughts, actions and ways of relating to each other, into a single dot. This way of thinking discards an abundance of potential and interpretive freedom, in order to have an arbitrary (yet cognitive economic) focus point. Equipped with such a strangely slender representation of what is available, it is perhaps not surprising that people talk about years of journeying.

The fact is that I’m yet to meet someone who has actually arrived on their journey. This makes me think that any plan to set out on a safety journey is either naive, that there is no destination, or that the metaphor has serious flaws.

Safety journey talk is also relational. Once the safety journey language game has been establish, the choice is between being one who is on a journey, and one who is not. You’re either onboard or not. As such, the safety journey is a powerful linguistic tool to force people to join a higher cause. Whatever people have believed in and built towards is consequently evaluated against the end goal, or against the itinerary. The travel metaphor can thus be threatening, urging people to give up ways that are important to them, to replace this with systems and other people’s ideas, to be ready to relinquish their home turf. While some people may be inclined toward change and embracing uncertainty, many people are not. As a consequence, everybody is frustrated: those who urge for the journey to continue, and those who have things to loose. The point is that a safety journey does not invite to build successful projects based on what is currently available, but rather what those leading the organisation has thought out.

Should there indeed be a change or not, chances are that both leaders and followers will see that what came out of the new direction is not glossier and more functional than what was before. As a consequence, people grow weary, disillusioned, and start separating themselves from overarching bold initiatives to favour more local control. As a result, organisations become more fragmented and filled with employees who cannot find the opportunity to contribute meaningfully.

If we describe safety developments as a predictable travel from here to there, there is little hope people will want to be part of what we are trying to achieve. We could try to abandon the use of this metaphor or otherwise expel it. However, it should be possible to describe safety developments as explorations, to make it a trip into the unknown for which everybody’s contribution, experience, eyes, ears and sense-making capacity are needed. This way we can have a collaborative and adaptive journey, one that is modified as unforseen events, encounters and opportunities appear. But that journey emerges from taking care of what is, from insights and rich entanglements impossible to incorporate into any itinerary.

14 thoughts on “Safety journeys: Are we there yet?”

  1. Is safety a journey? It cannot be a goal, as there is no end to safety, especially not in this world where precautions become more and more important, where citizens want to see more and more from organizations, where transparency is a must for organizations.
    If it is a journey, it has no end. Maybe a good metaphor will be that safety and comparing or ranking organizations on a scale can seen as rush hour on the highways (plural): each car goes in a certain direction at it’s own speed. And each driver wants to come home safe….in his or her own way.

      1. Daniel,
        What is the meaning of the ‘flowing soup” metaphor (yes, Socrates coming around the corner).
        It might be interesting to explain it you want the metaphor to gain popularity. 😉

        “Safety……, we all know what it is, don’t we?” And nobody dares to ask questions any more. But do we really know? The flow of the traffic in Paris might indicate it: we all see the traffic but nobody knows where it goes. And we don’t ask. Should there be more of Socrates in the world (also towards regulators and politicians)?

  2. The other classic line from organisations is ‘the culture isn’t ready’. As if culture is linear and rational. It makes us put off change or, worse yet, blame the culture for bad ideas or designs. If people are non compliant with a great process, it’s a ‘non compliant’ culture rather than a process that hasn’t considered Human Factors, such as useability. We should be challenging ourselves to come up with solutions that do work and work quickly rather than putting off challenging approaches due to culture.

    In regards to Safety, we already know what’s going to reduce incidents: evidence-based approaches. I wonder if the ‘safety journey’ is actually based on evidence?

    1. Hi Nick!

      ‘The culture isn’t ready’ indicates to me that culture is a normative term, ie not about helping people to make difficult calls etc.

      Evidence sounds nice (a tantalising notion?). Do you refer to scientific evidence? If so, I’m afraid very few safety initiatives and concepts would stand the test, for example safety journey talk.

      Should these initiatives/concepts be abandoned or marked as irresponsible in the absence of such support? Is the solution more scientific studies?

      1. How about we start by looking at the existing research and find ways to apply that. For example, we know a lot about different types of cognitive biases that distort decision making in rick assessments but have our risk management practices changed to reflect the science?

  3. To purport that ‘safety journeys are based evidence’ is like saying ‘is ethical leadership’ or ‘transformational leadership’ based on evidence. The research of Hudson and various others has been of great value to assist us to understand the evolvement of safety culture over time however it is not a cohort study nor does it purport to be. Rather I see it as a scientific enquiry approach to frame our thinking for ‘sensemaking’ of the social dynamics of safety cultures. Still useful to inform our thinking so we can navigate our thinking to understand the human factor.

    1. I think the journey metaphor can be useful in framing our thinking. But if the metaphor is false or misleading, is it really useful? In terms of evidence, it would be interesting to know if organisations that use this metaphor have fewer safety incidents than those that don’t.

      As an aside, I wonder if realising there is no safety journey is the true destination of a safety journey? 🙂

  4. Nice piece thank you Daniel. for me ‘journey’ is too linear for the real world. Things tend to branch and grow organically so if you are stuck on a single vehicle or route this limits your routes and your choices. Whenever I hear the ‘It’s a journey’ I – metaphorically – reach for my revolver (the safety catch stays on of course).

    1. John,

      For some time I stopped my colleagues whenever they said ‘safety journey’ and asked “what do you mean?” (A Socratic gun perhaps). I didn’t take long before the extra awareness around the label triggered some innovative alternatives..

      Apart from the root cause talk, I like tree metaphors. Much messier and life like that A-B. Potentially, a tree metaphor ruins the possibility for gap analysis… I’m personally opting for a ‘flowing soup’ metaphor, but I doubt that will ever gain popularity.

      Perhaps the challenge is not so much to have a dominant or common language to describe safety developments, but to allow multiple metaphors (and recognise them as metaphors).

  5. Hi Guys,

    As a surfer once tought me: Travelling is not about the destination, it is about the journey”. What I took from that is, that it is important to follow your own path, and learn from your experiences. There might be some destinations, but that does not mean the path towards that place is set in stone.
    So for safety it might not be such a bad metaphor. It’s about the other ideas, it’s about your own (perhaps even old) experiences and trying to learn.

    And for the people who don’t like to travel, we’re perhaps nothing else than 7 billion space monkeys travelling on a rock in a uncontrolled fasion.
    So perhaps we do not always get what we want…. (or think what we’re getting…)

  6. I’ve wrestled with this topic for two decades – specifically in what I term Complex, High-Consequence Circumstance institutions (e.g. nuclear power and chemical weapons demilitarization).

    A few distinctions I’ve incorporated into my ways of describing what I understand about the systematizing involved in CHCC performance improvement.

    Focus on the Work – this enables the identification of a specific journey.

    Performance of Work combines Production and Protection activities unfolding in collaboration – much as with a sailing vessel proceeding upwind, both production and protection tacks are needed to complete the journey – most CHCC Work is of the proceeding “upwind” character.

    Do Work Safely – beware of Do Safety, Work when ‘Safe Enough’ paradigms; there are many “gurus and programs” that depend upon accepting the unachievable assumptions of Do Safety, etc.

    Safely is an assessment of the anticipation that Work Plans offer “reasonable assurance of adequate protection” – this judgment, at the point Work is authorized, reflects relevant experience regarding both reliability (avoidable rework is minimized to the extent practical in the specific situation) and resilience (provisions are made for a degree of unanticipated outcomes; that they will be recognized and responded to in ways determined before hand to reflect prudence – e.g. Stop Work)

    Safely is also a judgment in retrospect of completing the Work; it assesses the actual course of events in relations to what was expected and seeks opportunities to improve reliability and resilience.

    Adopt a Rising Standard of Adequacy – this may be the most important way in which the Journey metaphor is helpful in a Do Work Safely paradigm – if Work is defined to be “doable” (i.e. to have a near-term objective anticipated to be achievable in the near term) then frequent opportunities will exist to assess how Safely the work proceeded. A Rising Standard of Adequacy represents a commitment to improve without making a reductionist commitment toward ever closer approach to excellence.

    In a portfolio of many related work actions (as part of a longer Mission Achievement journey) lost of human variability will arise; mistakes will be made, avoidable rework will occur in a variety of ways. On two successive performances of a proven procedure there are many practical reasons that each performance offers opportunities to reach for improvement.

    The commitment to a Rising Standard of Adequacy is not an endless journey; it is the search for the next journey to go as well or better than the previous one – it acknowledges that the next journey may not go as well but that need not be taken as a sign of failure, only a sign for assessment of the extent to which the margins of adequate protection were reduced and then how to restore them or if appropriate modify them.

    A final point: most Work is of the form Do the Already Learned – these are carried out in an Organize and Execute fashion; Safely is benchmarked to well established past practices for familiar circumstances – a heavy focus on reliable Performance is entirely appropriate provided Protection adequacy is not mindlessly traded off against Production.

    But there is Work of sufficient unexplored complexity or other uncertainty that a Do by Learning process is warranted – these must be carried out in a Discover & Develop institution with the added capacities of resilient response to regular unanticipated outcomes. The D&D endeavor is inherently more challenging – think Shakleton’s adventure to the South Pole. Learning becomes something that is in the operational foreground at all times as the endeavor is unfolding.

    The metaphor of the journey can be very illustrative provided one does not gloss over the varying degrees of situational uncertainty and the degree of natural variability in such uncertainty.

  7. Daniel

    The idea that the journey metaphor ‘rests on bureaucratic, plan-driven, sequential, predictive or prescriptive development ideals’ is a on odd attribution to the journey motif.’ The idea of a journey need not suppose either a sense of direction or method indeed, I remember as child the idea of a Sunday drive was a ‘suck it and see’ activity, half the time we didn’t know where we were going till we got in the car. The idea of the journey metaphor seems to me much more about movement than destination and enactment more than completion. I don’t see a journey as either a scale, higher cause or comparative maturity index, a strange way to impute a value on to such an activity. The journey metaphor to me is much more about ‘the road less travelled’ (M. Scott Peck) and the idea of tuning into the transcendent self than some kind of mechanistic understanding of progression. Are we there yet? that’s not my question.

  8. We must remember that true wisdom is the knowledge that you know nothing. Those looking for a solution in the journey will be sadly disappointed, the search for safety offers no solutions only questions. I think personally that the generative nature at the top of Hudson’s scale is like true wisdom, first assume you know nothing.

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