Is Safety A Barrier to Success or a Mission Enabler?

In my many conversations with safety professionals I often find that organizations use two approaches to integrating safety into production; 1) they either plan so long that their planning hinders operations (and this isn’t necessarily because they can’t execute based on a deficiency of knowledge or capability, but is often due to the numerous bureaucratic layers of red tape and permissions required) or 2) they act so rapidly without putting in the analytical rigor regarding hazards, risks, and controls that they experience failure that could have possibly been prevented or at least minimized.

Before we start being too critical, let’s put this all in context. In the first case, maybe organizations are caught up in their own inertia and they cannot act quickly when new opportunities arise. Particularly in large organizations with a traditional hierarchical organization structure smaller units may be biased towards inaction unless direct permissions are received. In many cases this may put employees in such a long and detailed planning mode that they stop trying new ideas and this can create a climate that stifles innovation. Additionally, many organizations are accustomed to long and detailed planning that starts with a vision and then follows a long detailed path for diffusing that vision into the organization. Visions are necessary, but can they sometimes hinder action? I recently read an interesting article about how IBM’s turnaround used a focus on execution rather than vision:

This isn’t to say that planning isn’t important, because it is. However, organizations and teams can get stuck in the planning process for so long that they can induce additional problems when they finally reach the execution phase. We may think this couldn’t happen in the safety world, where planning is critical, but in some cases is it possible to plan so much and build in so many controls and rules that they actually inhibit crews from performing optimally? So, planning is crucial and in many cases sacrifice decisions must be made to place the importance of safety over production, particularly with Safety Critical Functions, but safety professionals must plan with operations directors, line managers, and crew supervisors to 1) help them understand the importance of safety and the importance of slowing down temporarily to develop a solid, executable plan that meets safety and production goals and 2) to help themselves understand “the mind of the operator” and how workers perceive the blending of safety and production together to achieve mission success. In this manner the deep and meaningful conversations may take place between safety and production to reach a unified goal, integrating operations targets with a deliberate approach to risk management. These conversations may help to speed up the planning process a bit, particularly after these types of planning cycles have been conducted and teams get comfortable with the processes. Additionally, if organizations can relinquish a bit of centralized control to lower level managers the planning process may be accelerated, but there should always be a direct line of communication between safety and top-level leadership.

Okay, so we can make the case for a method to speed up planning a little bit, but what about organizations that are spring-loaded to jump right into operational execution? How do we handle situations where teams want to commence operations without emphasizing the need for a solid plan that includes a deliberate approach to hazard analysis, risk assessment, implementation of hazard controls, and identification of supervisory methods to ensure controls are working effectively (protecting people/equipment/environment without excessively hindering operator performance or introducing excessive unintended consequences)? Even if this does not occur frequently, it may happen when unexpected events or abnormal operations occur and crews must recover quickly. Again, I think in this case the safety professional can add tremendous value to the team by being involved in the conversations during the planning process (assuming there is one). Teams must understand that jumping in right away without a detailed plan has the potential to lead to operational losses and this could be a worse situation than delaying action. In many cases in the rush to meet production targets when a serious injury occurs the job is delayed or shut down and not only is the production target missed, but the organization incurs serious losses in terms of personnel and money. Again, one approach goes back to the integration of safety and operations professionals working together during the planning process and “slowing down to speed up.” Once the planning process is put together and worked through several times teams may actually get better at operational execution because the appropriate controls are put in place and they are cued up to take action if or when certain hazards occur. This also requires an awareness of the need for Time-Sensitive Risk Management (but that may have to be the subject of another post in the future).

Another thing we should realize is that safety is an emergent property of a system and we may never fully realize how safe a system is or where the weaknesses in safety defenses lie until we put the system in operation and maintain continued awareness of how the various parts within the system are operating to maintain control. In other words, safety and production professionals would want to maintain continuous awareness of how operations are unfolding and how safety approaches are being used to successfully complete the work of the organization. This requires another set of deep and ongoing conversations between these at the “blunt end” (removed from direct hazard exposure) and those at the “sharp end” (the workers and doers who perform the daily high-hazard work that ultimately brings revenue in for the organization). Line managers and crew supervisors must communicate with safety professionals and top leadership to gain a flow of awareness regarding the potential gap between Work-As-Designed and Work-As-Performed. Using a control and feedback process this gap may be narrowed, not necessarily by simply telling crews to follow the rules, but by identifying why and where adaptations need to take place (either in the design of the work system or the ways procedures are executed). This isn’t a one-time process; it must be ongoing, which is why debriefing is extremely important and should be a process integrated into the work day.

Is this information anything new? Probably not, but I hear stories where organizations fall on one side or the other and I think it is important to keep this conversation at the forefront of our work. By creating an environment where planners and doers, safety and operations professionals, and top leadership, line managers and front line supervisors are able to have these important conversations organizations may find methods to balance safety and production, planning and operational execution, and detail and efficiency. 


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

Ericson II, Clifton A. Hazard Analysis Techniques for System Safety. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2005. Print.

Hollnagel, Erik, David Woods, and Nancy Leveson. Resilience Engineering: Concepts and Precepts. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006.

Leveson, Nancy G. Engineering a Safer World, Systems Thinking Applied to Safety. Cambridge:     The MIT Press, 2011. 95. Print.