Thursday, August 6, 2009

Signs of a Reactive Organization (MIT #6)

One of the most important insights to be gained from a systems perspective of safety management is the effectiveness of various responses to changes in system conditions.  Recall that in our post #3 on the MIT paper, we talked about single versus double loop learning.  Single loop response included short term, local responses to perceived problems while double loop referred to gaining an understanding of the underlying reasons for the problems and finding long term solutions.  As you might guess, single loop responses tend to be reactive.  “An oscillating incident rate is the hallmark of a reactive organization, where successive crises lead to short term fixes that persist only until the next crisis.” [pg 22]  We can use our NuclearSafetySim model to illustrate differing approaches to managing problems.

The figure below illustrates how the number of problems/issues (we use the generic term "challenges" in NuclearSafetySim) might vary with time when the response is reactive.  The blue line indicates the total number of issues, the pink line the number of new issues being identified and the green line, the resolution rate for issues, e.g., through a corrective action program.  Note that the blue line initially increases and then oscillates while the pink line is relatively constant.  The oscillation derives from the management response, reflected in the green line, where there is an initial delay in responding to an increased numbers of issues, then resolution rates are greatly increased to address higher backlogs, then reduced (due to budgetary pressures and other priorities) when backlogs start to fall, precipitating another cycle of increasing issues.




Compare the oscillatory response above to the next figure where an increase in issues results immediately in higher resolution rates that are maintained over a period sufficient to return the system to a lower level of backlogs.  In parallel, budgets are increased to address the underlying causes of issues, driving down the occurrence rate of new issues and ultimately bringing backlog down to a long-term sustainable level.



The last figure shows some of the ramifications of system management on safety culture and employee trust.  The significant increase in issues backlog initially leads to a degradation of employee trust (the pink line) and an erosion in safety culture (blue line).  However the nature and effectiveness of the management response in bringing down backlogs and reducing new issues reverses the trust trend line and rebuilds safety culture over time.  Note the red line, representing plant performance, is relatively unchanged over the same period indicating that performance issues may exist under the cover of a consistently operating plant.

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