Monday, October 4, 2010

Survival of the Safest

One of our goals with SafetyMatters is bringing thought provoking materials to our readers, particularly materials they might not otherwise come across.  This post is an example from the greater business world and the current state of the U.S. economy.  Once again it is based on some interesting research from professors at Yale University* and described in an article in the New York Times.**

“Corporate managers struggling to preserve their companies and protect their core employees have inadvertently contributed to a vicious cycle of rising unemployment and plummeting national morale. If we are to break out of this downward spiral, we first need to understand the problem…professional managers throughout the business world see it as their job to keep work-force morale high. But, paradoxically, the actions they take for their own workplaces often make the overall crisis more severe.”

These issues have been the subject of research by Yale economics professor Truman Bewley.  While his specific focus is on labor markets and how wages respond (or don’t respond) to periods of reduced demand, some of the insights channel directly into the current issues of safety culture at nuclear plants. 

Bewley’s approach was to interview hundreds of corporate managers at length about the driving forces for their actions.  The article goes on to describe how corporate managers respond to recessions by protecting their most important staff, but paradoxically these actions tend to produce unforeseen and often counter-productive results. 

The description of how actions result in unintended consequences is emblematic of the complexity of business systems, where dynamics and interdependencies are not always seen or understood by the managers tasked with achieving results.  Nuclear safety culture exists in such a complex socio-technical system and requires more than just “leadership” to assure long term sustainability. 

This brings us to the first part of Dr. Bewley’s approach - his focus on identifying and understanding the driving forces for managers’ actions.  We see this as precisely the right prescription for improving our understanding of nuclear safety culture dynamics, particularly in cases where safety culture weaknesses have been observed.  A careful and penetrating look at why people don’t act in accordance with safety culture principles would do much to identify the types of factors, such as performance incentives, cost and schedule pressures, etc. that may be at work in an organization.  Driving forces are not necessarily different from root causes - a term more familiar in the nuclear industry - but I tend to prefer it because it explicitly reminds us that safety culture is dynamic, and results from the interaction of many moving parts.  Currently the focus of the industry, and the NRC for that matter, is on safety culture “traits”.  Traits are really the results or manifestations of safety culture and thus build out the picture of what is desired.  But they do not get at what factors actually produce strong safety culture in the first place.

As an example we refer you to a comment we posted on a Nuclear Safety Culture group thread on LinkedIn.com.  Dr. Bill Corcoran initiated a thread asking for proposals of safety culture traits that were at least as important as those in the NRC strawman.  Our response proposed:

 “The compensation structure in the corporation is aligned with its safety priorities and does not create real or perceived conflicts in decisions affecting nuclear safety.” ***

While this was proposed as a “trait” in response to Bill’s request, it is clearly a driving force that will enable and support strong safety culture behaviors and decisions.

* To read about other interesting work at Yale, check out our August 30, 2010 post.

** Robert J. Shiller, "The Survival of the Safest," New York Times (Oct 2, 2010).

*** The link to the thread (including Bob's comment) is here.  This may be difficult for readers who are not LinkedIn members to access.  We are not promoting LinkedIn but the Nuclear Safety Culture group has some interesting commentary.

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