"Measurement is the key to knowledge", a quote that researchers, analysts, engineers, managers, but also safety experts are only too happy to run with. Today, we are keen on recording numbers that make measuring of our goals a possibility. Based on these measurements we indeed know whether or not we are doing well and it even makes it possible to determine whether we can reward or penalise those involved. Or you find the entrance to an industrial terrain is adorned with a large sign indicating how long the organisation has been free from fires, accidents or other catastrophes. It appears to announce, 'Look how safe we are’. A safety expert from Australia told us that Australians refer to these as so called 'feel good signs’. But what if we are convinced that these quantifications tell us little about the 'real' safety in society or in the organisations? What other choices do we have then? How can we know how we are doing, how we stand in terms of safety? How do we know if we have an overall acceptable quality standard? Before we answer that question, we first want to give a definition of what we understand under ‘quality’. For us quality has to do with arrangements that lead to the maintaining of agreed performance levels, in which learning and development are structurally embedded. Now you might think 'nice definition, but how do we do that?' How do we evaluate whether we actually deliver the agreed and desired quality? Can we somehow determine that by expressing it in numbers? In recent decades, we have mainly focused on measuring. A way of 'observing' that we were taught from an early age. This is how we were taught, what we grew up with and we can even proclaim it’s as if it’s in our western DNA. However this does not mean that we could not learn to look at it differently. Do we choose to measure quality/safety (quantitative) or do we want to know how things stand in respect of the quality/safety (qualitative)?
Do you want to measure it or do you want to know about it?
To answer this, let’s take a slightly more personal situation which most of us can relate to. How do we know, for example, how our relationship is going? Can we measure it with numbers? Should we then tally up how many times we talked to each other, how often we ate out, or how many times we said something nice to each other? We could ask a similar question to determine how things are with our children. Could we then agree that numbers would have to be above a certain minimum to determine that things are going well? So instead of a KPI, we would base it on a KRI, that is, a "Key Relations Indicator". It probably won’t surprise you if we state that we cannot express the essence (the quality) of these matters in figures or other firm quantities. In order to know if all is going well with our relationship or our children, we will regularly have to communicate with each other. Only then will we know whether those involved are satisfied.
Now you could say the example of a relationship is very different from the measurement of quality and safety. But is that really so? Is it in essence really different? Isn’t the standard of quality and safety within organisations not largely determined by experience and significance?
It is in any case our opinion that the underlying principles are not actually different. And with this as a starting point, we think it is at least remarkable that we still choose in both social and organisational issues to measure quality and safety predominantly quantitatively and to express it in numbers. We only need to look around and we see that many organisations with enormous dedication pull a large amount of KPIs out of their hat. Targets are changed into numbers so that, with the aid of various systems (for example, stop cards, incident reporting systems, etc.) we can then measure how far we have actually achieved our goals. Moreover it becomes very easy for an auditor when he/she, with one look at the ‘dashboard’, can quickly and easily determine whether or not the organisation is 'on track'. In itself, this does not need to be a problem, however what does go wrong is when we then regard these numbers as factual. We think that these figures, statistics, Excel charts and what not, tell us whether or not we are doing well.
Take, for instance, the number that we display as the number of days without incident. Now does this number actually say something about safety in the organisation? Can we really measure safety by producing numbers that actually exhibit the absence of LTIs (or fires, emissions, etc.)? We should not focus on the absence of danger, but instead we should precisely seek out the presence of safety within the organisation. Something we can figure out if we enter into dialogue with those involved, if we listen to them and be open to the different ways in which importance is given to safety.