Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Can Assessments Identify Complacency? Can Assessments Breed Complacency?

To delve a little deeper into this question, on Slide 10 of the NEI presentation there is a typical summary graphic of assessment results.  The chart catalogs the responses of members of the organization by the eight INPO principles of safety culture.  This summary indicates a variety of responses to the individual principles – for 3 or 4 of the principles there seems to be a fairly strong consensus that the right things are happening.  But 5 of the 8 principles show greater than a 20 score negative responses and 2 of the principles show greater than a 40 score negatives. 

First, what can or should one conclude about the overall state of safety culture in this organization given these results?  One wonders if these results were shown to a number of experts, whether their interpretations would be consistent or whether they would even purport to associate the results with a finding.  As discussed in a prior post, this issue is fundamental to the nature of safety culture, whether it is amenable to direct measurement, and whether assessment results really say anything about the safety health of the organization.

But the more particular question for this post is whether an assessment can detect complacency in an organization and its potential for latent risk to the organization’s safety performance.  In a post dated July 30, 2009 I referred to the problems presented by complacency, particularly in organizations experiencing few operational challenges.  That environment can be ripe for a weak culture to develop or be sustained. Could that environment also bias the responses to assessment questions, reinforcing the incorrect perception that safety culture is healthy?  It may be that this type of situation is of most relevance in today’s nuclear industry where the vast majority of plants are operating at high capacity factors and experiencing few significant operational events.  It is not clear to this commentator that assessments can be designed to explicitly detect complacency, and even the use of assessment results in conjunction with other data (data likely to look normal when overall performance is good) may not be credible in raising an alarm.

Link to NEI presentation.

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