Why a Deming Approach to Safety?

Why a Deming Approach to Safety?

The purpose of this article is to explain why I advocate a Deming Approach to Safety and what I mean by that.

Safety at work is a subject of interest to many people.  There are those who do the work and those for whom the work is done either as customers or managers and owners of the business.  Then, in may economies, there is the wider society that is affected by the incidences of harm that occur and often government agencies that seek to regulate activity to limit this harmful impact.

As someone involved in assisting others to achieve safer work I have looked to find ways to do this.  At first I was engaged to assist in the writing of safety management schemes with the aim of providing evidence to the industry Regulator that the business owners were addressing risk of harm adequately.  What this became was an exercise in describing an imagined system of work to outside inspectors who were seeking to check whether the provisions of the manuals met the requirements of a set of rules written by their body and assumed to be sufficient to meet any given situation and circumstance.

To do this the system was designed to closely refer to the regulations and include language that had a good enough match for the inspectors to recognise it and be confident in assuming that it was therefore compliant.  The contents of the manuals contained material that was familiar such as identifying hazards that had a potential to cause harm and assigning a risk factor with associated numerical weighting,  based on assumptions over severity and likelihood.  Then controls that would limit this risk were designed and another factor determined, the now assumed reduced risk.  For ease the scales of numerical weighting were associated with a standard phrase ie High, Medium and Low, and a colour based on the well tried method of Red for danger, Yellow for warning and Green for OK.

After some assessment and recommendations to bring the content into line with what had been seen elsewhere the system was approved and a certificate duly issued.  The company was now certified as compliant but I began to wonder if this meant that as a result the people doing work would not only be safe now but would continue being safer.

I had doubts.

So, I started some research and a google for accident prevention led to consideration of the work of Sidney Dekker, Erik Hollnagel and Todd Conklin amongst others.  A read of Todd’s books “Pre-Accident Investigations: An Introduction to Organisational Safety”, “Pre-Accident Investigations, Better Questions” and “Workplace Fatalities: a Failure to Predict” gave me insight to one proponent of a new approach to safety and an introduction to what to consider BEFORE accidents in order to better prepare for failure rather than AFTER when the only thing possible is to clear up the mess, repair the damage and write some rules to stop that from happening again.

After reading some of the work completed by Erik Hollnagel I began to conceive of a systems approach, especially after learning about his Functional Resonance Accident Model (FRAM) and his advocacy of looking at what goes right in work as much if not more than what goes wrong in order to make that work safer, basically the difference between Safety I and Safety II.

Now I had a premise in mind that safer work would only come from better work and was open to the arguments that seemed to divide safety persons into 2 groups bounded by shared opinions.  On the one side were those who considered the cause of accidents to be attributable to those involved, often the ones injured or killed and determined to be a source of “Human Error”.  They would look for root causes and associate responsibility with blame and then maybe temper this by applying principles of Just Culture.  The approaches they advocated centred predominately on controlling and influencing the behaviours and performance of workers and were heavily reliant on rules and procedures and checking for and ensuring compliance with these.  There also seemed to be a lot of association with all accidents being preventable and slogans such as “Safety First” and “Zero Harm”.

The other side looked more at the influences of the system within which individuals were completing work, its complexities and complications and seemed to be more about treating the people as human and fallible and accidents as events that although undesirable were only preventable when they were predictable.  This seemed to fit my own concepts and experiences and also explained why the desired goal of zero was persistently and stubbornly being out of reach.

I came up against what looked to me to be a barrier.  There were no end of theories of what would be better ways of achieving safer work but they seemed to me to founder on one major obstacle.  If the way work was organised was in line with traditional formats as in a hierarchy then the introduction of something new and different would only work if the people in control changed their way of managing rather than looking to keep that the same and change the performance of the workforce.  Examples of companies engaged in better work inevitably led to Toyota but I thought they only achieved that status of world class example and model when they changed their way of thinking and I wanted to know what caused that rather than discover their current methods for producing cars.

At the back of my mind there was a dimly formed concept that there had been a radical and transformational change in Japanese management after WWII and influenced by Americans operating under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur.  This opened up references to people such as Sarasohn, Juran and one Dr W Edwards Deming.  Clips available on You-tube gave clues to the role of Dr Deming and so I looked for sources in New Zealand that could tell me more.  Fortunately there were none available so I looked up the Deming Institute and submitted a comment asking for ways to learn more about Dr Deming’s work so I could apply it to reducing fatalities, primarily in the commercial fishing industry.  This piqued the interest of the Deming Institute’s Deputy Director, Bill Bellows, who contacted me to ask a simple question.  What do you need to know?

What has followed is a mentored ongoing conversation and discussion about  aspects of Dr Deming’s work, his theory of a System of Profound Knowledge and how understanding of its 4 components of:

  1. An appreciation for a system
  2. A knowledge of the variation within it
  3. A Theory of Knowledge
  4. An understanding of why people act and what motivates them

can provide a lens with which to view a company and how it works in a different way so that a transformation in how it is organised, managed and operated as a system.  This to me offers a workable means for achieving safer work through better work and is the basis for A Deming Approach to Safety.

I hope to continue to expand on what this means and how it can be applied in each situation where there is a need for people to work safely together.