Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Nature of Decision Making

This post may seem a bit on the abstract side of things but is intended to lay some foundation for future discussions on how to represent and model safety culture.  We have posted previously about the various definitions of nuclear safety culture that are in vogue.  Generally we find the definitions to be of limited value for at least two reasons: one, they focus on lists of desired traits and values but do not address the real conflicts and impediments to achieving those values; and two, they don’t illuminate how a strong safety culture comes about, or even whether it is something that can be actively managed.  Recent discussions on some of the LinkedIn forums include lots of references to good leadership practices and the like, essentially painting a picture that safety culture is a matter of having “the right stuff”.  But how much of safety culture is a product of leadership traits if those traits do not translate into hard day-to-day decisions that are consistent with safety priorities? 

This train of thought always leads us back to focusing on decision making as the backbone of safety culture.  In turn it makes us ask how can we look at decisions as a balancing function that accounts for a variety of inputs and yields appropriate actions on an ongoing basis.  We found the following formulation quite helpful:

“...decision making is conceived as a continuous process for converting varying information flows into signals that determine action….In system dynamics, a decision function does not portray a choice among alternatives….we are viewing decision processes from a distance where discrete choices disappear, leaving only broad organizational pressures that shape action.”*

We have taken Morecroft’s approach and adapted it to nuclear safety culture context.  The diagram below shows the status of key organizational assets (we have used three - generation, budget and safety - as illustrations) being accessed (black arrows); processing the information through various layers that interpret, limit and rationalize as the basis for decisions; and the resulting decisions being fed back (orange arrows) to adjust performance of each of the assets.  (A larger figure with additional explanatory notes is available here.)

In other words, decision making is viewed as a process and not as discrete events.  Decision making is constantly impacted by the status of all asset stocks in the business and produces a stream of decisions in response, resulting in adjustments to each of the stocks.  When we define safety culture in terms of assigning the highest priority to safety consistent with its significance, we are effectively indicating how the stream of decisions should allocate resources among the various organizational assets.

Part of the problem we see in various definitions or “explanations” of safety culture is in its complexity and multiplicity of attributes, values, and traits that must be accommodated.  The bounded rationality aspect of a system dynamics approach stems from a belief that people can only process and utilize limited sets of inputs, generally far less than are available.  Thus in our formulation of a safety culture “model” you will see that the performance of key business assets are based on just a few key attributes that input to decisions and trigger the prioritization process.

We expect some people will have difficulty viewing safety culture in terms of information flows, decision streams, and allocations of resources.  However a process based model is a big step toward consideration of how to manage, measure and achieve goals for safety culture performance.

*  John Morecroft, Strategic Modelling and Business Dynamics (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) p. 212.

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