Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Confusion of Properties and Qualities

Dave Snowden
In this post we highlight a provocative, and we believe, accurate criticism of the approach taken by many management scientists in focusing on behaviors as the determinant of desired outcomes.  The source is Dave Snowden, a Welsh lecturer, consultant and researcher in the field of knowledge management.  For those of you interested in finding out more about him, the website http://cognitive-edge.com/main for Cognitive Edge, founded by Snowden, contains an abundant amount of accessible content.

Snowden is a proponent of applying complexity science to inform managers’ decision making and actions.  He is perhaps best known for developing the Cynefin framework which is designed to help managers understand their operational context - based on four archetypes: simple, complicated, complex and chaotic. In considering the archetypes one can see how various aspects of nuclear operations might fit within the simple or complicated frameworks; frameworks where tools such as best practices and root cause analysis are applicable.  But one can also see the limitations of these frameworks in more complex situations, particularly those involving nuanced safety decisions which are at the heart of nuclear safety culture.  Snowden describes “complex adaptive systems” as ones where the system and its participants evolve together through ongoing interaction and influence, and system behavior is “emergent” from that process.  Perhaps most provocatively for nuclear managers is his contention that CDA systems are “non-causal” in nature, meaning one shouldn’t think in terms of linear cause and effect and shouldn’t expect that root cause analysis will provide the needed insight into system failures.

With all that said, we want to focus on a quote from one of Snowden’s lectures in 2008 “Complexity Applied to Systems”.*  In the lecture at approximately the 15:00 minute mark, he comments on a “fundamental error of logic” he calls “confusion of properties and qualities”.  He says:

“...all of management science, they observe the behaviors of people who have desirable properties, then try to achieve those desirable properties by replicating the behaviors”.

By way of a pithy illustration Snowden says, “...if I go to France and the first ten people I see are wearing glasses, I shouldn’t conclude that all Frenchmen wear glasses.  And I certainly shouldn’t conclude if I put on glasses, I will become French.”

For us Snowden’s observation generated an immediate connection to the approach being implemented around the nuclear enterprise.  Think about the common definitions of safety culture adopted by the NRC and industry.  The NRC definition specifies “... the core values and behaviors…” and “Experience has shown that certain personal and organizational traits are present in a positive safety culture. A trait, in this case, is a pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving that emphasizes safety, particularly in goal conflict situations, e.g., production, schedule, and the cost of the effort versus safety.”**

The INPO definition defines safety culture as “An organization's values and behaviors – modeled by its leaders and internalized by its members…”***

In keeping with these definitions the NRC and industry rely heavily on the results of safety culture surveys to ascertain areas in need of improvement.  These surveys overwhelmingly focus on whether nuclear personnel are “modeling” the definitional traits, values and behaviors.  This seems to fall squarely in the realm described by Snowden of looking to replicate behaviors in hopes of achieving the desired culture and results.  Most often, identified deficiencies are subject to retraining to reinforce the desired safety culture traits.  But what seems to be lacking is a determination of why the traits were not exhibited in the first place.  Followup surveys may be conducted periodically, again to measure compliance with traits.  This recipe is considered sufficient until the next time there are suspect decisions or actions by the licensee. 

Bottom Line

The nuclear enterprise - NRC and industry - appear to be locked into a simplistic and linear view of safety culture.  Values and traits produce desired behaviors; desired behaviors produce appropriate safety management.  Bad results?  Go back to values and traits and retrain.  Have management reiterate that safety is their highest priority.  Put up more posters. 

But what if Snowden’s concept of complex adaptive systems is really an applicable model, and the safety management system is a much more complicated, continuously, self-evolving process?  It is a question well worth pondering - and may have far more impact than much of the hardware centric issues currently being pursued.

Footnote: Snowden is an immensely informative and entertaining lecturer and a large number of his lectures are available via podcasts on the Cognitive Edge website and through YouTube videos.  They could easily provide a stimulating input to safety culture training sessions.

*  Podcast available at http://cognitive-edge.com/library/more/podcasts/agile-conference-complexity-applied-to-systems-2008/. 

**  NRC Safety Culture Policy Statement (June 14, 2011).

***  INPO Definition of Safety Culture (2004).


  1. This approach is the future, reflecting the lessons of quantum mechanics as a model of the universe in contrast to the mechanistic, reductionist thinking of Newtonian physics. My favorite researcher / consultant on the leading edge of this movement is Sydney Dekker. Check out his book, "Drift into Failure" for a conceptual model that applies complexity theory and control theory.

  2. Thank you for the comment and the reference to Sydney Dekker. We wrote about Dekker in an August 3, 2009 post.


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