Thursday, November 12, 2009

What is Italian for Complacency?

It is “compiacimento”.  Why would I be providing this bit of knowledge?  The reason is a recent speech by Commissioner Dale Klein of the NRC to a conference in Rome, Italy.  What I found interesting was that once again an NRC Commissioner was sounding the warning about complacency as a latent flaw that can undermine nuclear safety.  We have written a number of posts on this blog on the subject and continue to emphasize it as otherwise . . . . we would be complacent.

One of the direct quotes from the speech is, “Complacency is the primary enemy of an effective regulatory program.“  Klein goes on to recount how both the NRC and the industry had grown complacent prior to the TMI accident.  As he said it, “success breeds complacency”.

The complacency issue is the takeoff point for Klein to link complacency with safety culture.  His point being that a healthy safety culture, one that questions and challenges, is an antidote to complacency.  We agree to a point.  But a question that we have asked and try to address in our safety management models is, what if complacency in fact erodes safety culture?  Has that not been observed in more recent safety failures such as the space shuttle accidents?  To us that is the insidious nature of complacency - it can undermine the very process designed to avoid complacency in the first place.  From a systems perspective it is particularly interesting (or troubling) because as compla-cency erodes safety culture, results are challenged less and become more acceptable, further reinforcing the sense that everything is OK, and leading to more complacency.  It is referred to as a positive reinforcing loop.  Positive reinforcing loops have the ability to change system performance very rapidly, meaning an organization can go from success to failure faster than other mechanisms (e.g., safety culture surveys) may be able to detect.

Link to speech.

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