Have you ever been to one of those quaint old towns that seem to have a lot of remnants of the past, despite new growth? The new growth could include new businesses or widened streets to accommodate more traffic. Indeed new growth is wonderful, yet preserving the past can be great as well. There are some wonderful towns that have managed to grow, change, and adapt while preserving the touches of history that have helped shape their future.
On the other hand, have you ever been to a town that tried to adapt, but did not consider adapting as a system? I will give you an example. Street curbs are used to funnel traffic in appropriate directions. They serve as small barriers to keep traffic oriented in the proper direction or keep vehicles from crossing certain boundaries. However, in some towns when streets are changed or if new buildings are built, if the old curbs are left intact, rather than being moved, and if they are not in line with the buildings or streets, the curbs may actually create a new hazard by forcing vehicles into awkward positions as drivers attempt to maneuver. Failing to remove or move the curbs may not be intentional. Perhaps the designers or planners didn’t realize the curbs needed to be moved. Even if this oversight is unintentional, when organizations change and adapt they need to consider all aspects that will be impacted by the changes. Otherwise new hazards could be created.
Now imagine that instead of a town with curbs we are talking about an organization with rules. The organizational leadership strives to consistently adapt and change so the company can remain competitive. So, new machines may be purchased and installed, new technology may help employees perform their work, and new hazard controls may be implemented to protect workers. This is all great stuff, but if the old rules are not modified to reflect the current state (including people, processes, and equipment), then the old rules could become a form of hazard. Instead of working to help employees and keep them safe, employees could face a mismatch between old rules that no longer fit with the new changes in the organization.
Consider this hypothetical situation: Employees used to perform hazardous work, which caused them to get close to rotating machinery. The solution was to provide them with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to minimize the impact if they were struck by fragments or moving parts. The workplace rules required employees to wear a lot of PPE. The more PPE, the safer, right? Over the years, new machinery has been purchased that has eliminated some risks, substituted less hazardous work methods, and that includes multiple forms of engineering controls. These safety features not only protect employees, but allow them to perform work faster through innovative design solutions. As the equipment is installed, production quotas increase. After all, if the equipment supports faster production, why not increase quotas? However, if the PPE rules are not changed to reflect the new safety features of the equipment and the additional production requirements, employees may be required to continue to wear the same cumbersome PPE, which may reduce their ability to move quickly and perform their work. Additionally, if the new work methods require them to move in different ways or to move faster, it is possible that the PPE could become its own hazard.
In this case, they are forced to either comply with the same old PPE policy (even if a new risk assessment could demonstrate acceptable risk without the same levels of PPE) and potentially fail to meet their production requirements, or violate the PPE policy to keep up with the new operational demands. While this scenario may seem far-fetched, as a concept, this seems to happen quite a bit; one part of the organization changes, without changing other parts. This doesn’t have to be a rule related to PPE, but it could be a policy or procedure that is changed without considering those who will be impacted, even in remote ways. When change takes place in a vacuum, without considering all who will be impacted, new risks can emerge (such as risks to production when employees are required to comply with outdated PPE requirements).
One method to rectify this type of problem is to view your organization as a system with many interconnected parts. When considering new changes, incremental innovation, or disruptive innovation, think about the impact it will have on the organization. Creating innovation committees or groups with a diverse representation from as many departments or business areas that may be impacted may help leaders gain a more comprehensive perspective on the impacts of changes. A Management of Change process may help as well. Change is smart, and organizations that don’t adapt to new demands, such as customer requirements or market shifts risk experiencing major failures. However, changing the system (including all of the interrelated parts) is necessary for the change to work properly and to be effective for all those involved.
So, when you think about your organization, do you have any old “curbs” that need to be removed or adjusted? Do you have any outdated rules that simply remain in place because they have always been there and nobody has bothered to review the policies? Are these old rules creating new hazards? If so, perhaps taking a system-oriented approach may help you rectify the problems.
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Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe day!