Why Did the Llama Cross The Road?

Q: Why did the llama cross the road?

A: Because somebody left the gate open and the llama escaped, of course!

A while back I wrote a blog post about transitioning from Active Duty in the Marine Corps to rural life in a farming community. I now live on a large property, and one of our cohabitants on this property is a really cool llama. She is calm, cool, and laid back, but I realized that if a gate is left open, she likes to explore our property. What is even more interesting to me is how lessons about safety can be learned from a llama. But, how can a llama teach us about safety?

When I was a flight instructor in the Marine Corps I used to ask my students if they were familiar with the “big sky, little airplane” concept, basically explaining that airplanes are so small compared to the big sky, and asking about the odds of two planes trying to occupy the same space at the same time and colliding. I am not really sure about the exact probability, but I know it can happen. Similarly, I found out that the “big field, little gate” concept means nothing to a llama, who will find a way to get out, even if a gate is only opened a small amount.

I recently awoke to find the llama outside of her fenced off area (which is quite large). After several hours of trying to coax the llama back into her fence, my family and I were finally successful, and learned a valuable lesson about safety. How, you may wonder? The simple act of forgetting to close a gate (and not realizing it) led to a chain of events. Although this time the tale ended up with a happy ending (a captured llama, a bruised ego, and some funny stories), it could have ended much differently.

In our organizations, how often do we pay attention to the small signals indicating that a failure may occur or that a hazard might cause harm? In many high-hazard operating environments, particularly where routine operations are performed, it can be easy to miss the small or weak signals, or to dismiss them altogether, thinking that they will not result in a mishap. We may also think that hazards are inherent to the operations, so they should simply be accepted. Sometimes this is not an intentional act, but is a result of the accumulation of attitude shifts over time. The problem is that the way risk is often perceived can vary and risk must be continuously examined to determine if our perception is appropriate and if the risks match the current internal and external environment. Since the world is continually changing, including the economic and regulatory demands on organizations, risk is constantly changing, and the demands placed on operational teams will also change, requiring teams to adapt. So, rather than assessing risk and considering the risk management process complete, once and for all, as organizations change and adapt, risk should be reassessed. When risk signals are emitted, such as a machine guard left off a piece of equipment, lockout/tagout procedures not being followed, a safety gate left unlatched, leaders should examine the situation and determine how even seemingly small hazards could potentially lead to large consequences.

So, what is your organization’s llama, and what is your llama’s gate? What can you do to improve the process of evaluating risk perspective and comparing this perspective to the actual dynamic operating environment?

For those of you who read my posts you may notice that I try to inject some humor into my discussions about safety, leadership, and operational performance. If you like my posts and would like to subscribe to V-Speed’s email list, please fill out our contact form and include “Email List Subscription” in the title of your message. Thank you for reading, and have a great, and safe week!