Safety: differently, I vs II, or leading, caring and supporting?
As a passionate safety professional, and one who cares about helping others to lead successfully, I read, listen and learn about the differing views, and the thinking about safety in aviation and other safety-critical industries. What strikes me is some of the complexity in the thinking, language and delivery that is out there. I hear and read about Safety I vs II, about doing things differently, about systems, processes, software and an ever-expanding taxonomy or jargon.
‘Safety’ is an unstable and at times elusive state, one that requires positive, confident and constant attention if an organisation is to succeed and grow, to achieve its purpose. In order to deliver that attention effectively, the day-to-day activities and tasks that help protect an organisation from harm need to be simple, easy to do and an integral part of how people work day today. Complexity is the enemy in the front line of an operation!
The challenge is that industries, sectors, regulators and organisations are all at different levels of maturity in developing, delivering and sustaining safe and compliant operations. Emerging thinking is also challenging the status quo. For example, Safety Differently and Safety II are commonly quoted models that, more often than not, overlay and overlap with familiar concepts, whilst introducing new language – they can and have been misinterpreted so that they are ‘good’ and current safety management practices are ‘bad’. Whatever the solutions adopted by organisations, they have to be appropriate to their size and complexity, and also relevant to the inherent risk of what and how they do what they do – but what about their level of maturity? I often equate it to exams, there is no point expecting or demanding degree level competence and execution in a team who are working at early secondary/high school level. There should, however, be a progression that is appropriate to the organisation’s outputs.
All the thinking out there, all the models, concepts and conversations boil down to the same intent. No matter the regulation, legal environment, industry or sector, the intent is to deliver the organisations purpose by maximising the good things and minimising the bad. In this case, it is about identifying and improving the things that support and deliver good outcomes, and minimising the potential for bad outcomes.
Leaders throughout any organisation need to help break through the complexity, to help and inspire those around them, to understand what is important to their teams and their business, and why that is the case.
Boiled down to its simplest level, safety is about caring and supporting those around us and those who may be affected by what we do, directly or indirectly.
It links directly to a higher sense of purpose, of society and the role we play – no matter our culture or heritage. A number of times, I have had conversations with senior leaders, managers and teams who perhaps have lost sight of this clear and simple duty of care; focussed instead on audits, metrics, indicators and targets. The challenges of complex, bureaucratic structures and processes combined with constant fire-fighting cloud their view, normally through no fault of their own – it is a place we drift in to. On the other hand, there is a need to develop advanced ways of monitoring the weak safety signals that we are relying on more and more in order to be proactive. The challenge then is to introduce the advanced ways and means within the specialist teams who need the capability but to contain the complexity and translate it into the simple day to day activity for the teams out delivering the operation. As an example, one organisation presented over 140 different graphs in the agenda for their top-level safety meeting, so the conversation not surprisingly was completely about numbers and their validity, rather than discussing the real challenges in the business and how to enhance the support their teams needed.
The tests then:
- Do we as leaders still have sight of that care and support,
- Does it drive simplicity in the decisions we make – do we put it at the heart of how we work?
- Do we support the safety professionals in helping them implement advanced tools, yet contain the complexity?
The alternative perhaps is that we have let the complexity overcome our organisation so that we focus on numbers, on targets and on processes rather than our people. In some organisations, is it the case that we consider safety only as frequently as our regulations or regulators require it?
In the past, I have failed to maintain my focus on the care and support, and have let my team down as a result. I was fortunate enough to have others around me who had the courage to tell me before it went badly wrong.