Better Decisions.

When we think of safety we can oftentimes get bogged down in specific technical issues, such as regulatory compliance requirements, and we may end up spending so much time on these issues that we miss the bigger picture of why we do what we do as safety professionals. Our mission should be to help keep our teams safe and to help facilitate safe operational execution and performance. Well, that’s a pretty broad statement. To be more specific, as part of our mission we need to be proficient at making sound decisions that help support our teams to accomplish their work safely. If that is true, then we need a systematic process for making decisions to support our teams.

That’s pretty easy, right? We all make decisions every day at home and at work. Life is full of decision-making opportunities and many times we make decisions without giving them much thought, so we must be pretty good at it, right? Yes and no. Perhaps for routine decisions where the choice boundaries are narrow we can be fairly competent decision-makers, but when non-routine problems emerge decision-making can become more complex. When the stakes are low we can sometimes afford to make mistakes. For example, when we go to lunch with a colleague we may choose a chicken sandwich that ends up looking like a piece of cardboard, then we see our colleague’s delicious cheeseburger as it is set on the table wishing we had ordered differently. In that case, the consequences of failure may be perceptibly low: disappointment and a dry piece of chicken. In that situation perhaps we went with our “gut” and made a poor choice.

On the other hand, what if we go with our gut on a high-stakes decision and get it wrong? What if we select safety technology because we feel that it will make our teams safer, yet ultimately it makes the job more difficult and what may have seemed like a short term safety improvement and long-term cost savings ends up costing more due to extensive training requirements or retrofitting when it is realized that the technology selection did not address certain specific needs? These are just two simple examples (and maybe you had a good reason for selecting the dry chicken sandwich over the cheeseburger). These examples are designed to help illustrate the potential problems with not having a comprehensive and repeatable decision-making process.

Never fear, there are several tried and true strategies available. How about the pros and cons approach where the pros of a choice are compared to the cons and a decision is made based on the best pros? Another, and perhaps more structured, approach is the use of a decision analysis matrix. You know this one, right? It’s where you create a table and list your possible choices in the left column. On the top row you assign a weighting for the importance of various attributes (such as safety, cost, schedule, and performance), which add up to 100% when combined. Then each possible choice is given a score for each attribute, the score is multiplied by the weighting factor, and then these scores are added to obtain a total score for each possible choice. Then the total scores are compared and the highest overall score may seem to be the top choice. Simple, right?

Well, a decision analysis matrix and the associated process may not be simple, but it can be a very helpful technique. The problem with either of these approaches is that they may not take into account multiple impacts. The pro/con or decision analysis matrix may include systematic processes, but they may not help us to think like a system. In order to be more effective decision-makers we need to use system thinking and we need to apply an approach to decision-making that takes into account the system elements which surround the decision to be made. There is a difference between using a systematic process and a system thinking approach.

By using a system thinking approach we should consider the problem to be solved, then as we start considering the options available to us we should consider the elements of the system that will impact the decision or will be impacted by the decision. These should include inputs (such as financial resources, time, human resources, tools and equipment, etc.), transformational processes (such as work rules, methods, or procedures that must be adhered to), outputs (such as specific quotas or production requirements, which may be correlated with the overall goal, but stated in more specific terms), and the interaction with the internal and external environment (such as hazards and risks, internal organizational culture issues, etc.). As each system element is examined and then cross-checked with the various decision options some options may be added to the list of solutions while others are subtracted. By using this open system approach to decision-making and combining it with an analysis tool like the decision criteria matrix we may be able to weigh our options in terms of their specific value, but also help increase the likelihood that the choice will fit within the larger system context.

This methodology may help us avoid selecting what may seem like a perfect (or near perfect) option based on the objective criteria, only to find out after implementation that we missed a huge factor that renders the decision nearly useless, or extremely expensive or labor-intensive to implement.  These issues are often known as unintended consequences. All decisions will have consequences, both good and bad, and some will be intended while others will be unintended. One of the goals of a decision-making process should be to maximize the positive intended consequences while minimizing the negative unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are often only revealed after-the-fact once a decision is implemented, but perhaps by using this system-oriented approach we may be able to minimize the number or magnitude of unintended consequences while maximizing the benefits as we work to achieve safe operational performance.

Oh yeah, and let’s not forget about the need for post-decision analysis and the potential for surprise bonuses. Even if there are some unintended consequences (and there normally will be some) there may be some positive attributes that may be revealed as surprises. These surprises may be dismissed if a solid post-decision evaluation process is not used. However, if leaders and managers take the time to evaluate their decision-making process and the outcomes they may also realize additional benefits that were not foreseen at the time the decision was made. Capturing this information and using a lessons-learned process may help to improve organizational learning and may help reveal some unintended and perhaps unrecognized benefits of a decision. Additionally, the post-decision process should not focus solely on the outcome, but should also evaluate the effectiveness of the process. Sometimes we can use a flawed process and still "get it right," but the end doesn't necessarily justify the means. In other cases a solid process can be followed and decision-makers may still choose a course of action that leads to a poor outcome. If decisions are only evaluated on the outcome there may be missed opportunities for learning. 

Now, having said all this, I realize that in time-compressed situations there may not always be time to go through a lengthy decision-making process. In those situations we may need another strategy, but that may need to be the subject of another post...

I hope you enjoyed this post and I hope it adds value to your activities.  If you sign up for our newsletter you can obtain a copy of this post in a newsletter version with additional exclusive content related to decision-making, which we only make available to our newsletter subscribers.  You may subscribe at the following link or complete the form below.

Thanks for reading and have a great day!

Reference: Cadieux, Randy E. Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety, and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams. Burlington: Gower Publishing, 2014. 

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