Overcoming Resistance to High-Reliability and Safety Improvement Efforts

“Why should we do this?” This is a question we may often hear when trying to implement major organizational change. Employees, supervisors, and managers want justification for efforts that require them to change old habits. “Do it because I said so” tactics just won’t cut it. To be fair, these “why” questions are legitimate questions. If something appears to be working for employees, they deserve to know why they should change. In fact, in our Crew Resource Management Communications learning module I emphasize the importance of explaining the why behind the what and how.  But what happens after workers are told why and they still don’t lend their support and provide their complete buy-in to implementation efforts designed to improve organizational reliability or safety?

I remember years ago when I was in flight school learning about stop-drilling cracks in aircraft wings. This is a temporary fix for micro-failures, which is used to help reduce the likelihood of a crack propagating further and causing catastrophic failure. This is a temporary measure and it is a great analogy to illustrate the potential benefits of micro-failure.

Sometimes allowing a degree of error and micro-failure can be a great teaching tool. After all, some great inventions, like what we often call "yellow sticky notes" were created as a result of failure. When I was a student in flight school and then later an instructor there were times when I had to learn by error and failure or teach my students to learn through error and failure. After all, most flight students will not master a technique the first time they try it, so they have to practice techniques over and over again until they get it right. In some cases, flight instructors may recognize students have forgotten a step or are about to misapply a certain technique, and they develop defensive strategies to recover quickly to avoid catastrophic failure. This allows students to experience micro-failure and learning from their errors without causing harm to the aircraft. We used techniques called “defensive positioning” as well to make sure errors didn’t get to the point where catastrophe occurred. After the maneuver was completed and the aircraft was recovered (often by the Instructor Pilot), this would be a time for on-the-spot debriefing to help explain to the students what they did wrong and how to correct it. In many cases the debrief would be followed by another attempt. Post-flight debriefs were longer and were an opportunity to go into greater detail about the whys behind the what and how (the proper techniques). So, like a stop-drilled crack may attempt to reduce the likelihood of micro-failure expansion, we tried to use micro-failure as a training tool so critical errors would not be allowed into student habit patterns. I went into some detail about learning from small failures in a recent interview titled "Scaling Up To a High-Reliability Organization."

Is this a technique that may be used to overcome resistance to efforts in creating a culture of High-Reliability and for improving safety culture? Maybe. Perhaps when workers are extremely resistant there may be opportunities to allow micro-failure, so long as there are recovery methods that may be enacted quickly to prevent major disruption. These are strategies that organizational leaders must figure out on their own. However, one of the characteristics of resilient teams and organizations is that they fail gracefully and rather than waiting for catastrophic disruption and they tend to have a slower degradation and quicker recovery rather than brittleness and catastrophic failures. Here are a few points that may help address resistance to change when trying to build a high-reliability culture:

  • Allow the why questions. Hiding and suppressing them may build distrust within the employee ranks.
  • Provide legitimate answers and try to show with examples if feasible.
  • Where feasible develop scenarios for micro-failure that demonstrate the need for change, but make sure the situations can tolerate the micro-failure and build in recovery options.
  • Avoid ridicule; instead teach and encourage learning. When workers fail using the old ways, try not to ridicule them. Use this as a learning opportunity and provide alternative methods to help them be successful in the future.
  • Don’t underemphasize learning from success. This post has focused on learning from failure, but in many cases we don’t spend enough time learning from successful events. Try to find opportunities for small scale trials with the new approaches you are trying to implement and communicate successes and small wins. This may have a powerful impact on those who are resistant to change.
  • Tie the reason for the change to a larger overall vision and strategy. I remember years ago when a group I was part of transitioned to a new aircraft. We had to alter the way we communicated and worked together in terms of crew dynamics. The technology of the aircraft was so complex that we needed all crewmembers to participate in pointing out safety problems or errors. We had to cultivate a climate where even junior employees were allowed to speak up and one that would not tolerate outdated habits from the earlier version of the aircraft. It was important to understand that the changes were part of a larger vision of transitioning to a highly complex and more capable aircraft. We had to see ourselves differently, and our methods worked to produce the needed change.

This is just a short list, but should provide you with some ideas on how to deal with resistance to change. Major transformational efforts can be challenging and sometimes it can help to have a framework for change. When you are trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle, what is your strategy? Many people will find the straightedge pieces and build the exterior of the puzzle first, providing a framework for the interior pieces. Similarly, if you are trying to build a team or crew performance program you also need a framework, or something that can help to hold things together. Our Crew Performance Guide is one tool that may help you. It is designed to give your teams and crews actionable strategies to infuse high-reliability and team performance techniques into routine and non-routine operations.

I hope this has been a helpful article and I hope it provides some strategies to assist you with your change efforts. As always, thank you for reading and I wish you a great, safe, and productive day! 


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