Monday, August 17, 2009

Safety Culture Assessment

A topic that we will visit regularly is the use of safety culture assessments to assign quantitative values to the condition of a specific organization and even the individual departments and working groups within the organization.  One reason for this focus is the emphasis on safety culture assessments as a response to situations where organizational performance does not meet expectations and “culture” is believed to be a factor.  Both the NRC and the nuclear industry appear aligned on the use of assessments as a response to performance issues and even as an ongoing prophylactic tool.  But, are these assessments useful?  Or accurate?  Do they provide insights into the origins of cultural deficiencies?

One question that frequently comes to mind is, can safety culture be separated from the manifestation of culture in terms of the specific actions and decisions taken by an organization?  For example, if an organization makes some decisions that are clearly at odds with “safety being the overriding priority”, can the culture of the organization not be deficient?  But if an assessment of the culture is performed, and the espoused beliefs and priorities are generally supportive of safety, what is to be made of those responses? 

The reference material for this post comes from some work led by the late Bernhard Wilpert of the Berlin University of Technology.  (We will sample a variety of his work in the safety management area in future posts.)   It is a brief slide presentation titled, “Challenges and Opportunities of Assessing Safety Culture”.  Slide 3 for example revisits E. H. Schein’s multi-dimensional formulation of safety culture which suggests that assessments must be able to expose all levels of culture and their integrated effect. 

Two observations from these slides seem of particular note.  They are both under Item 4, Methodological Challenges.  The first observation is that culture is not a quantifiable phenomenon and does not lend itself easily to benchmarking.  This bears consideration as most assessment methods being used today employ some statistical comparisons to assessments at other plants, including percentile type ranking.   The other observation in the slide is that culture results from the learning experience of its members.  This is of particular interest to us as it supports some of the thinking associated with a systems dynamics approach.  A systems view involves the development of shared “mental models” of how safety management “works”; the goal being that individual actions and decisions can be understood within a commonly understood framework.  The systems process becomes, in essence, the mechanism for translating beliefs into actions.

Link to slide presentation

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