Monday, March 22, 2010

Safety Culture Dynamics (part 1)

Over the last several years there have been a number of nuclear organizations that have encountered safety culture and climate issues at their plants. Often new leadership is brought to the plant in hopes of stimulating the needed changes in culture. Almost always there is increased training and reiteration of safety values and a safety culture survey to gain a sense of the organizational temperature. It is a little difficult to gauge precisely how effective these measures are - surveys are snapshots in time and direct indicators of safety culture are lacking. In some cases, safety culture appears to respond in the short term to these changes but then loses momentum and backslides further out in time.

How does one explain these types of evolutions in culture? Conventional wisdom has been that culture is leadership driven and when safety culture is deficient, new management can “turn around” the situation. We have argued that the dynamics of safety culture are more complex and are subject to a confluence of factors that compete for the priorities and decisions of the organization. We use simulation models of safety culture to suggest how these various factors can interact and respond to various initiatives. We made an attempt at a simple illustration of what may illustrate the situation at a plant which responds as described above. CLICK ON THIS LINK to see the simulated safety culture dynamic response.

The simulation shows changes in some key variables over time. In this case the time period is 5 years. For approximately the first year the simulation illustrates the status quo prior to the change in leadership. Safety culture was in gradual decline despite nominal attention to actions to reinforce a safety mindset in the organization.

At approximately the one year mark, leadership is changed and actions are taken to significantly increase the safety priority of the organization. This is reflected in a spike in reinforcement that typically includes training, communications and strong management emphasis on the elements of safety culture. Note that following a lag, safety culture starts to improve in response to these changes. As time progresses, the reinforcement curve peaks and starts to decay due to something we refer to as “saturation”. Essentially the new leadership’s message is starting to have less and less impact even though it is being constantly reiterated. For a time safety culture continues to improve but then turns around due to the decreasing effectiveness of reinforcement. Eventually safety culture regresses to a level where many of the same problems start to recur.

Is this a diagnosis of what is happening at any particular site? No, it is merely suggestive of some of the dynamics that are work in safety culture. In this particular simulation other actions that may be needed to build strong, enduring safety culture were not implemented in order to isolate the failure of one-dimensional actions to provide long term solutions. One of the indicators of this narrow approach can be seen in the line on the simulation representing the trust level within the organization. It hardly changes or responds to the other dynamics. Why? In our view trust tends to be driven by the overall, big picture of forces at work and the extent to which they consistently demonstrate safety priority. Reinforcement (in our model) reflects primarily a training and messaging action by management. Other more potent forces include whether management “walks the talk”, whether resources are allocated consistent with safety priorities, whether short term needs are allowed to dominate longer term priorities, whether problems are identified and corrected in a manner to prevent recurrence, etc. In this particular simulation example, these other signals are not entirely consistent with the reinforcement messages, with a net result that trust hardly changes.

More information regarding safety culture simulation is available at the website. Under the Models tab, Model 3 provides a short tutorial on the concept of saturation and its effect on safety culture reinforcement.

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