A milking stool has three legs. If you remove one it will fall over.
Safety has three legs. If you remove one it will fall over.
Milking stools, or any other three legged stools for that matter, are very stable when all the legs are in place and working and are held together solidly by the seat part of the stool. It falls over very quickly if any component is defective or missing. They are pretty stable though, even when the ground is uneven. They can handle a bit of uncertainty and even when the legs are a little bit different in length, are still able to stand and be effective.
So it is with safety. The three legs that need to be in place to create safe work are; Risk Intelligence, Authentic Field Leadership and Incident Investigations. Holding this all together are Conversations. Conversations are in many ways the seat of the stool. Without it, we do not even have a stool and it all falls over.
Let’s have a look at each in turn:
Risk Intelligence is not the same as Risk Management, Risk Assessment, Risk Aversion or Risk Control. According to Dylan Evans in his book by the same name, Risk Intelligence is the ability to estimate probabilities and likelihoods accurately. Having our people capable of simply taking a look at what they are about to do and thinking about what could go right as well as what could go wrong, the likelihood of either happening and then deciding what they are going to actually do to make sure it all goes well is what it is all about. Dr. Robert Long also talks about the word ‘risk’ as being interchangeable with the word ‘learning’ in his great book Real Risk. I agree. We do not want to be risk averse in the work place. That dumbs down risk intelligence. We want people to explore new ways of doing things, of undertaking micro-experiments in their work, of thinking about what controls they choose, not being overly reliant on following procedures like brain-dead lemmings, of learning from the work they do on a daily basis and generally to be risk intelligent. In reality, we are setting up Work-As-Intended through changes in Task Hazard Analysis, changes to procedures and work instructions and through ‘Management of Change’ in all these areas. It is important to remember here that we need to strike a balance between the recognition that some controls are ‘must haves’ and an understanding that these ‘must haves’ are often not enough on their own. We need to implement the ‘must haves’ in the context of the task and what else is going on. These not negotiable ‘must haves’ are often included in the system under categories like Material Risk, Fatal Risk, or sometimes Critical Risk. It is about giving license to be creative and improve work whilst understanding what must be in place.
The second leg of our Safety stool is what I will label Authentic Field Leadership. These are those activities (conversations mainly) that leaders undertake in the field on a day-to-day basis with people doing tasks. The intent is to try to understand the gaps between the way work was done on the day (Work-As-Done), how others normally do the work (Work-As-Normal) and how our processes and procedures intend it to be done (Work-As-Intended); and then we work to close the gaps we have identified. In many ways it is a form of verification as to how work is being done. The most powerful piece of advice I can offer here is for the leader to be authentic in their interactions. In the words of Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in Why Should Anytime Be Led by You? “Be yourself – more – with skill”. Showing who you are as a person, as a leader, showing you really care and are absolutely interested in what the team are doing, how they view the world in front of
them and exploring with them, their decision-making processes will get you a very long way in Authentic Leadership in the field and really support and be helpful to your team.
The third leg is Incident Investigations. Here we want to explore what is responsible for an outcome not being quite what we expected it to be (Someone had got hurt perhaps). In exactly the same way as we did for Authentic Field Leadership, here we are trying to understand the gaps between the way work was done on the day of the event (Work-As-Done), how others normally do the work (Work-As-Normal) and how our processes and procedures intended it to be done (Work-As-Intended); and then we work to close the gaps we have identified. I have said this often, and will do so again here: “the conversations we have before an event should be the same as the conversations we have after an event”.
So, how best to summarize the three legs? We want our people to have the competencies, capabilities and capacities to create safety through risk intelligence, our leaders keeping an eye on things through conversations in the field and sound investigation practices when it does go wrong. The secret is how we choose to help our people get really good at Conversations. I believe that an effective way we can help all of our people get better at conversations is by coaching.
We know that coaching and helping leaders become great coaches using a non-directive approach such as the GROW model helps enormously in the area of Authentic Field Leadership and Incident Investigations. How can we also use it in Risk Intelligence? To me, it is exactly the same. My suggestion is to explore how you can create a coaching culture. Consider, not only formal coaching of your leaders but also how to help them create a coaching style within their managing and leadership activities. Coaching can be used in just about any situation; when the team is thinking about how to do a task, when a leader is out in the field being an authentic safety leader or when they are helping a team really understand an adverse outcome such as an incident.
In summary, the glue that holds the stool together is making sure our people:
• Have the right capabilities, capacities and competencies,
• Are assigned tasks that are planned, thought through and clear,
• Understand the context and purpose of the task assigned to them,
• Understand how the job could be done to make it go right,
• Understand the likelihood of things going right (successful and safe completion of the task) and the likelihood of it going wrong,
• Understand what could go wrong, what to look for to indicate it might be going wrong and have a plan ready to implement when this happens,
• Be guided by simple systems such as easy-to-use SOPs and THAs (Work-As-Intended) that reflect how work is actually done,
• Have the right tools and equipment,
• Are supported through effective coaching conversations and care from authentic leaders, and
• Carry out the task as planned,
Then we WILL achieve productive and safe work.