Mind the Gap – Safety Cultures at Risk - Baines Simmons
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Mind the Gap – Safety Cultures at Risk

Published: 5th November 2018

Author: Mark Townend, Senior Consultant, Baines Simmons

Four weeks ago I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion at the CGE Risk “Making Risk Understandable” Networking Event.  The discussion topic was one that was particularly close to my heart:

Bridging the gap between management and workforce is the most important priority in creating an effective safety culture”.

The audience’s opening vote on whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement was in itself quite telling. Out of 110 voters 54% agreed and 46% disagreed: almost a 50/50 split.  Given the audience (an international mix of professionals from across numerous industries with a slight bias towards Aviation) I would offer the point of contention with the majority would have been with the word “most”: I doubt many would have disagreed if the question had read “one of the most”.

Now, we panel speakers (Edi Gittenberger, Anthony Pateyjohns, Simone Passarella and myself) all knew what was coming and had a little time to prepare our answers, but right up to the starting bell I wasn’t 100% sure which side of the question I fell on.  Safety Culture is such a hugely complex, multi-faceted, challenging and fragile thing to get right, never mind being able to (measurably) declare as “effective”.  How can any one aspect be argued to be more of less important than any other?

This debate could have gone on for hours, so mercifully we were limited to only a 10 minute panel discussion and some genuinely insightful comments from the audience to round off.  But the question and its various facets stayed with me for several more days afterwards.  How important is a gap between management and a workforce to a safety (or indeed a wider organisational) culture? If there is a gap, how did it get there? What might the indicators be of a harmful gap forming (preferably while there’s still time to do something about it)?  And, the most important question of all from a consultant’s perspective: when there is a harmful gap, how do we fix it?

In Baines Simmons, engagements with civil and military aviation organisations around the world have shown us that functional and cultural divides can easily develop within organisations where the appreciation and perspective on risk differs from one party to another.  Differences can occur internally (usually across the organisational hierarchy) and externally (commonly when working with outside or sub contracted agencies).  The cultural divides that result from these unmanaged differences can induce weakness in safety performance across all stakeholders, as well as cause significant inefficiencies in the delivery of output and operational management.  Bridging these gaps, both in the short and long term, should therefore be of strategic interest to senior management teams.

In the simplest possible terms, gaps and divisions within organisations can be rectified through the intelligent application of the big “5 Cs”:  cooperation, coordination, communication, clarity and continuity These 5Cs are critical to efficient and effective working both within the organisation’s hierarchy and across its subcontractors, neighbouring safety management systems and even customers, working to achieve the management and reduction of organisational risk as a collective and collaborative effort.  Lots of Cs here, so let’s break them down:

  1. Cross community Cooperation and Coordination, where everyone understands and plays their part in the efficient and effective management of risk while also knowing what parts others play and how their efforts can support (and undermine) them.
  2. Constant and proactive Communication ensures that every accountable manager is being given the most accurate Risk Picture available from those most in the know. Any changes or emerging vulnerabilities are more likely to be flagged well before a serious incident occurs.
  3. Clarity of risk and safety management intent and ownership ensures the interfaces between stakeholders (internal and external) are clear and understood by all parties.
  4. Continuity of roles, functions and standards (not necessarily people): allowing different stakeholders with different approaches, languages, intentions and priorities to deliver risk management effort to a consistent level and in a consistent way over the long term.

Now, it’s no coincidence that this topic was raised during CGE Risk’s conference on “Barrier Based Risk Management”.  Bowties have for a long while now been recognised as one of the most approachable and communicative of risk visualisation mediums and CGE Risk have gone to great lengths to maximise the accessibility and communicative properties of Bowties through their popular software packages BowtieXP, IncidentXP, AuditXP and BowtieServer.  I discuss the powerful communicative potential of well-constructed Bowties in the White Paper “Bowties and the Rise of Risk Visualisation”.

More than anything else, what’s impressed me during five years of working with Bowties in both civil and military aviation is how, with a little skill in the development and implementation, they can be made to speak across the yawning divides that exist between organisational management and the operational workforce in the perspective and appreciation of risk.

When it comes to risk, these two organisational parties speak and think in completely different languages.  One speaks low level, tactical observations: the other thinks “enterprise risk”, trended occurrences over time and emerging dangers to sustainable operations.  One worries about immediate harm to themselves, their close colleagues and their employment status: the other loses sleep over threats to operating licences, profitable growth and shareholder confidence.

Well-built and well-informed Bowties have the ability to bridge this “perspective gap”, joining both parties in the common pursuit of minimising harmful events through effective risk control.  The old saying goes that pictures paint a thousand words: I would only add to this wisdom that pictures can also speak a thousand languages.  A common language is a critical first step in finding a common cause that can be recognised, agreed upon and collaboratively worked towards by all parties.

As such, Bowties and their communicative properties have the potential to be a significant positive aspect of an effective safety culture, building the “common cause” of effective risk management into a single visualisation that can be agreed upon by all, understood by everyone, informed from the bottom and managed at the top.