Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Modeling Safety Culture (Part 1)

Our June 12th post on the nature of decision making raised concerns about current perceptions of safety culture and the lack of a crisp mental model.  We contended that decisions were the critical manifestation of safety culture and should be understood as an ongoing process to achieve superior performance across all key organizational assets.  A recent post on LinkedIn by our friend Bill Mullins provided a real world example of this process from his days as a Rad Protection Manager.

“As a former Plant Radiation Protection Manager with lots of outage experience, my risk-balancing challenge arose across an evolving portfolio of work…We had to make allocations of finite human capital - radiation protection technicians, supervisors, and radiological engineers - day in a day out, in a way that matched the tempo of the ‘work proceeding safely.’"*

What would a model of safety culture look like?  In terms of a model that describes how safety culture is operationalized, there is not much to cite.  NEI has weighed in with a “safety culture process” diagram which may or may not be a model but includes elements such as CAP that one might expect to see in a model.  A fundamental consideration of any model is how to represent safety culture; does safety culture “determine” actions taken by an organization (a causal relationship), or just provide a context within which actions are taken, or is it really a product, or integration, of the actions taken?   

There is a very interesting overview of these issues in an article by M. D. Cooper titled, appropriately, “Toward a Model of Safety Culture.”  One intriguing assertion by the author is safety culture must be able to be managed and manipulated, contrary to many, including Schein, who take a different view (that it is inherent in the social system). (p. 116)  In another departure from Schein Cooper finds fault with a “linear” view of safety culture where attitudes directly result in behaviors. (p. 122)  Ultimately Cooper suggests an approach where reciprocal relationships between personal and situational aspects yield what we view as culture.  (This article is also worth a read for the observations about the limits of safety culture surveys and whether the goal of initiatives taken in response to surveys is improving safety culture—or improving safety culture survey results.)

Our own view is more in the direction of Cooper.  We think safety culture can be thought of as a force or pressure within the organization to ensure that actions and decisions reflect safety.  But safety competes with other forces arising from competing business goals, incentives and even personal interests.  The actual actions and decisions turn on the combined balance of these various pressures.***  Over time the integrated effect of the actions manifest the true priority of safety, and thus the safety culture.  

Such a process is not linear, thus to the question of does safety culture determine outcomes or vice versa, the answer is “yes”.  The diagram below illustrates the basic relationships between safety culture, management actions, business performance and safety performance. It is a cyclic and continuously looping process, driven by goals and modulated by results.  The basic idea is that safety culture exists in an equilibrium with safety and business performance much of the time.  However when business performance cannot meet its goals, it creates pressure on management and its ability to continue to give safety the appropriate priority.  (A larger figure with additional explanatory notes is available here.)

*  The link to the thread (including Bill's comment) is here.  This may be difficult for readers who are not LinkedIn members to access.

**  M.D. Cooper, “Toward a Model of Safety Culture,” Safety Science 36 (2000): 111-136.

*** As summarized in an MIT Sloan Management Review article we blogged about on Sept. 1, 2010, “All decisions….are values-based.  That is, a decision necessarily involves an implicit or explicit trade-off of values.”  Safety culture is merely one of the values that is involved in this computation.

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