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10x Curiosity

Safety Differently and The Principles of Human Performance

Workers are not the problem, workers are the problem identifiers

(ref Pexels)

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Human Performance is a philosophical shift in how you manage safety, production, and reliability. Two interesting thinkers in this space are Todd Conklin and Sidney Dekker. Both of these thought leaders discuss what has become know as Safety II or New View thinking where people are seen more as being part of the solution rather than integral to the problem when it comes to incidents in our complex work environments.

Todd Conklin explains this in his book

The 5 Principles of Human Performance

  1. Error is normal. Even the best people make mistakes.
  2. Blame fixes nothing.
  3. Learning and Improving is vital. Learning is deliberate.
  4. Context influences behavior. Systems drive outcomes.
  5. How you respond to failure matters. How leaders act and respond counts.

If you place good people into bad systems, you will undoubtedly get undesired outcomes…

It is not our workers and operators who need fixing, it is our workplaces.

The 4 Principles of Safety Differently

  1. Safety is not defined by the absence of accidents, but by the presence of capacity.
  2. Workers aren’t the problem, workers are the problem solvers.
  3. We don’t constrain workers in order to create safety, we ask workers what they need to do work safety, reliably, and productively.
  4. Safety doesn’t prevent bad things from happening, safety ensures good things happen while workers do work in complex and adaptive work environments.

Safety is not the absence of accidents, safety is the presence of capacity. We don’t improve safety by eliminating bad things, we make safety better by improving our systems, processes, planning, and operations.

Dekker calls this “New View” thinking and summarises this mindset with the following points (Field Guide to Understanding Human Error):

  • Human error is not a cause of failure. Human error is the effect, or symptom, of deeper trouble.
  • Human error is not random. It is systematically connected to features of people’s tools, tasks and operating environment.
  • Human error is not the conclusion of an investigation. It is the starting point.
  • To create safety, you don’t need to rid your system of 70% human errors. Instead, you need to realise how people at all levels in the organisation contribute to the creation of safety and risk through goal trade-offs that are legitimate and desirable in their setting.
  • Rather than trying to reduce “violations”, New View strategies will find out more about the gap between work-as-imagined and work-as-done — why it exists, what keeps it in place and how it relates to priorities among organisational goals (both stated and unstated).
  • New View thinking wants to learn about authority-responsibility mismatches — places where you expect responsibility of your people, but where their situation is not giving them requisite authority to live up to that responsibility.

Dekker has an excellent 5 part YouTube series going into more detail on Human error and also a thought provoking piece on Just Cause in organisations

Conklin again…“The 5 Principles of Human Performance

Engaging workers as problem identifiers and not as problem makers changes everything.

Workers are not the problem, workers are the problem identifiers

Human error is about tolerance and recoverability. Can we fail at a point in the process and recover in such a way that we avoid significant operational upset? That question simply stipulates that errors will be made; we don’t know when, don’t know who, maybe not even know how, but the error will be made. When that error occurs are we robust enough to recover effectively and gracefully?

Before consequence arises, it is remarkably hard to imagine such an outcome... We execute our work thinking we will be successful in completing our work...Workers are mostly successful because they can quickly detect and correct errors while performing work. Even when we fail, we end up succeeding most of the time.


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Tom Connor

Tom Connor


Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change