"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.
As a pupil you are taught to think for yourself, at least that was once the principle of education. The rationale was that it’s good to learn to think independently, that you as student, guided with the knowledge and experience of the teacher, learn to use your own intellect. The world outside is, after all, different to being in the classroom. It’s a world that 'calls for' flexibility and adaptability.
The next step in your development, when you start work after graduation, is to gain (work) experience. When you, as a new employee, commence working for a company, all too often you enter a period when it is expected of you to fully integrate the set customs of the organization. You follow an induction program where you are inundated with training programs and have to read through piles of "paper", such as plans, rules, procedures, agreements. And to ensure that you have actually read and understand the material, on completion of a segment you are asked to sign-on-the-dotted-line. For how else could you prove, in an audit for example, that you have actually undertaken and completed the induction program?
One of the aims of the induction program is that you, as new employee, are up to date with what is expected of you, how you are expected to work, who's looking over your shoulder to make sure you are actually following the program and what the consequences are if, despite all the warnings, you ‘deviate’ from the path. With all good intentions, for a large number of situations, it is already determined how you are expected to respond. As if you are a self-propelled Google car "Just do what is expected of you then nothing can go wrong. We’ve really thought it all through well." The prevailing belief is that when we stick to these rules, we run no risks! The rules are in fact conceived in response to all sorts of things that have gone wrong in the past or are suspected they might go wrong in the future. And if you simply follow the rules then it cannot, in fact, go wrong.
But what would happen if we were to remove the bulk of the rules? If we would just simply say: "Welcome to our company. We are looking for people who want to (continue to) use their own intellect and insight. People who, based on their own knowledge and experience, are capable of assessing both known and unfamiliar situations in such a way that they can make well thought-out, informed decisions.
And that they are aware of the imagined reality (work-as-imagined1) but more importantly, also based upon their basic common sense, that they dare to deviate from the imagined reality (work-as-done2). An organization that is looking for people who understand that if you do "dumb" things it could cost you your life.
It goes without saying that both you (the employee) and the company (the management) wouldn’t want that. We won’t take unnecessary risks where the probability of (serious) injury is unacceptably high.
This means that together we must ensure that this does not happen. That we do not solely operate from the assumed reality - but that above all, we create space for the professional, the expert to make independent decisions - that instead of mountains of rules and procedures, we make a number of 'good' agreements on how we can ensure that here, as colleagues, we do NOT risk losing our lives.
You have the honors of making sure that this does not happen!
You can expect from us that we will support you wherever necessary, ultimately you are the expert!
When it comes to safety, we (employer and employee) fundamentally have similar responsibilities. Responsibility to (be able to) work safely does not lie solely with the employer or the employees. Safety is a shared responsibility that benefits from a certain degree of flexibility. By taking variation into account in our way of thinking and acting, we will be better prepared for the irregularities we are guaranteed to come across during the execution of our work. And with this in mind, it is important to realize that an excess in paperwork only leads to false security.
We want genuine safety!
1 Work-as-imagined: how it is pre-conceived that the work should be carried out
2 Work-as-done: how finally the work is actually carried out