Friday, September 21, 2012

SafetyMatters and the Schein Model of Culture

A reader recently asked: “Do you subscribe to Edgar Schein's culture model?”  The short-form answer is a qualified “Yes.”  Prof. Schein has developed significant and widely accepted insights into the structure of organizational culture.  In its simplest form, his model of culture has three levels: the organization’s (usually invisible) underlying beliefs and assumptions, its espoused values, and its visible artifacts such as behavior and performance.  He describes the responsibility of management, through its leadership, to articulate the espoused values with policies and strategies and thus shape culture to align with management’s vision for the organization.  Schein’s is a useful mental model for conceptualizing culture and management responsibilities.*     

However, we have issues with the way some people have applied his work to safety culture.  For starters, there is the apparent belief that these levels are related in a linear fashion, more particularly, that management by promulgating and reinforcing the correct values can influence the underlying beliefs, and together they will guide the organization to deliver the desired behaviors, i.e., the target level of safety performance.  This kind of thinking has problems.

First, it’s too simplistic.  Safety performance doesn’t arise only because of management’s espoused values and what the rest of the organization supposedly believes.  As discussed in many of our posts, we see a much more complex, multidimensional and interactive system that yields outcomes which reflect, in greater or lesser terms, desired levels of safety.  We have suggested that it is the totality of such outcomes that is representative of the safety culture in fact.** 

Second, it leads to attempts to measure and influence safety culture that are often ineffective and even misleading.  We wonder whether the heavy emphasis on values and leadership attitudes and behaviors - or traits - that the Schein model encourages, creates a form versus substance trap.  This emphasis carries over to safety culture surveys - currently the linchpin for identifying and “correcting” deficient safety culture -  and even doubles down by measuring the perception of attitudes and behaviors.  While attitudes and behaviors may in fact have a beneficial effect on the organizational environment in which people perform - we view them as good habits - we are not convinced they are the only determinants of the actions, decisions and choices made by the organization.  Is it possible that this approach creates an organization more concerned with how it looks and how it is perceived than with what it does?   If everyone is checking their safety likeness in the cultural mirror might this distract from focusing on how and why actual safety-related decisions are being made?

We think there is good support for our skepticism.  For every significant safety event in recent years - the BP refinery fire, the Massey coal mine explosion, the shuttle disasters, the Deepwater oil rig explosion, and the many instances of safety culture issues at nuclear plants - the organization and senior management had been espousing as their belief that “safety is the highest priority.”  Clearly that was more illusion than reality.

To give a final upward thrust to the apple cart, we don’t think that the current focus on nuclear safety culture is primarily about culture.  Rather we see “safety culture” more as a proxy for management’s safety performance - and perhaps a back door for the NRC to regulate while disclaiming same.*** 

*  We have mentioned Prof. Schein in several prior blog posts: June 26, 2012, December 8, 2011, August 11, 2010, March 29, 2010, and August 17, 2009.

**  This past year we have posted several times on decisions as one type of visible result (artifact) of the many variables that influence organizational behavior.  In addition, please revisit two of Prof. Perin’s case studies, summarized here.  They describe well-intentioned people, who probably would score well on a safety culture survey, who made plant problems much worse through a series of decisions that had many more influences than management’s entreaties and staff’s underlying beliefs.

***  Back in 2006, the NRC staff proposed to enhance the ROP to more fully address safety culture, saying that “Safety culture includes . . . features that are not readily visible such as basic assumptions and beliefs of both managers and individuals, which may be at the root cause of repetitive and far-reaching safety performance problems.”  It wouldn’t surprise us if that’s an underlying assumption at the agency.  See L.A. Reyes to the Commissioners, SECY-06-0122 “Policy Issue Information: Safety Culture Initiative Activities to Enhance the Reactor Oversight Process and Outcomes of the Initiatives” (May 24, 2006) p. 7 ADAMS ML061320282.  


  1. Years of exposure to large organisations suggest to me that the statements which senior managers make about the importance of safety have surprisingly little impact on the decision-making of shop-floor workers and middle managers. Most staff treat these statements as interesting, but essentially rhetorical. By contrast, what really affects their decision-making is evidence of senior managers' actions, not their words. It is through genuine management actions - such as dismissals, promotions, project re-scheduling and resourcing - that workers form their view of the sincerity and reliability of management rhetoric. Indeed senior managers can actually undermine the credibility of the safety message they espouse (which they may themselves sincerely believe) if they frequently assert that safety is the top priority when this is seen by workers to be contradicted by management actions. This suggests managers should spend less time making the assertion and more time asking workers if they believe it still holds true, and if not why.

  2. Thanks for your comment. We couldn't agree more.

  3. Thank you for responding to my question. Your analysis, and the comment above from Anonymous, ring true to me. And I am familiar with Professor Perin's work. Now I am eager to read more from your earlier blog posts. I am reminded of TJ Larkin's book "Communicating Change", and recommend it as a practical guide.
    Best regards and thank you for your excellent blog.

  4. Let me offer a view that gets to the same endpoint "skepticism about what is happening with NRC staff's construct "nuclear safety culture" but from a different understanding about the good doctor's contribution.

    I come at Dr. Schein's institutional risk insights from a broader reading of his writings than it seems most do across the nuclear power enterprise. It is correct that quite some years ago he introduced the three-level classification scheme to describe the inputs that people in organizations rely upon for most decision-making. This was a sociologists view of what would then have been considered mass psychology.

    This classification scheme is intuitively satisfying about where all the anomalous outcomes arise from; it is a good first "ah hah" for those in a plant or corporate office who are accustomed to thinking about "truth" in terms of linear, reductive engineering practice - all those managers and regulators who have been stumped for several decades by the messy business of human error.

    Dr. Schein's fascinating career began in studies of Korean War veterans who were "brain-washed" in captivity - he knows a great deal about how plastic human attitudes can be and how much systematization it takes to bring that about in a reliable fashion. Subsequently he worked in organizational studies during the period largely before contemporary neuroscience results were available.

    His early insights are in the tradition of metaphors and analogies pegged to the ubiquitous organization chart with its neatly parsed functional duties and responsibilities. His longitudinal study of the history of the DEC computing enterprise - and its ultimate collapse under its too brittle culture is a very insightful piece of ethnography and a great read - but there is no reference to Jungian type or the triune brain studies correlations of brain structures to personality to management performance.

    In any case it seems clear to me that the three tiered classification scheme is not intended to be a model of the dynamics of decision-making in complex high-consequence circumstances. True enough, in his 1994 book Dr. Schein indicated that the duty of leadership was to design and erect the culture that would produce the strategic mission outcomes set before the enterprise - but that quote is obsolete, we should not be finding it on Power Point slides or blog posts in 2012. [to be continued]

  5. However, if we read the speech he made to the INPO CEO's in 2003 quite a different picture is painted of how culture functions and what critical role leaders play. By 2003 Schein acknowledges that professions (e.g. engineering, operations, executive) are the attractors for the emergence of distinctive sub-cultures. These are the units of normative practice, not, typically, membership in any particular organization.

    Sub-culture membership comes with most of the knowledge workers (e.g. licensed operators, systems engineers, and journeyman craft and support personnel) before they arrive in the domain of the specific enterprise of a particular NPP. And every sub-culture has a blinkered view of both the constructed artifacts and the more tacit sources of decision-making norms.

    Dr. Schein came to recognize that every sub-culture comes with characteristic blind spots - and these result in natural communications gaps between the different professions. If you've ever watched engineers and operators talk past each other with great energy on the same subject you'll recognize this insight. These gaps can be harmonized out through facilitated (e.g. value-centric) discourse, but that harmonization rarely happens with out that added effort.

    Leaders, in this schema, the INPO CEOs were told, are responsible to value diverse perspectives but then to promote a harmonizing work climate and integrate their followers through the communications gaps. In this scheme, leaders are found throughout the organization, not just in the executive ranks - hierarchy is not the answer to every issue that arises.

    Understanding of the three-tiered classification scheme for norms remains important, but it is never to be confused with providing a model of the enterprise subculture alignment challenges of a particular site or owner institution. Models must be built for a mission context; values that support or hinder the mission must be openly harmonized, or the collection of natural blind spots will undermine the achievement of needed collaboration.

    None of this is "engineering work" and that is a problem that has long selected for technologists as its "stars." Once this fact is internalized, then the work of building human capital as a reliable but flexible asset can begin. For my money SECY-06-0122 "got it wrong" in many ways - given the blind spots of regulatory technical staff with little direct direct experience of design, operating, or construction we should not be surprised that they will not arrived well-informed when they set out to "get the safety culture" they conclude the industry needs.

    Please blast away if this doesn't make sense.

  6. Interesting stuff. I'd be interested if readers believe these communication gaps can be overcome through an emphasis on process rather than "facilitated discourse". For example, some industries have a chronic problem of designers creating engineered systems which are difficult, expensive or even dangerous to maintain. Fundamentally the solution is for maintainers to be involved in the development of the design. But many designers focus intensely on the operation and not the maintenance of the plant, and it doesn't occur to them to sit with maintainers early and often. Is this a "cultural" or even a "values" problem? Some have treated it as a process problem and sought to solve it by building stages into the design process which require "sign-off" by a maintenance authority before the design can proceed. But does this work? Without a cultural shift or "facilitated discourse" will the designers contact the front-line maintenance staff and not just the solitary signatory? Will the designers listen? And will the maintainers articulate their viewpoints in a way the designers can understand? Perhaps if we treat it as a process problem for now, then within a generation design engineers will have internalised and normalised the need to involve maintainers and we will have solved the cultural problem too. Perhaps. But I suspect there is a danger the process approach can degenerate into "your maintainers were invited to design reviews, if they didn't attend that's not our fault, now you have to sign or you'll be holding up the project". I'd be interested if readers have a view on how well safety culture surveys distinguish between "we've build consultation into the letter of our process" and "we honour the spirit too, in fact we'd do it even if the written process didn't require it".

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      Designers not considering maintainers is a long-standing problem. The initial problem is cultural, or rather sub-cultural, because it doesn’t even occur to the designers to consult with anyone outside the design sub-culture. A procedural fix can work—the organization can require the designers to consult with, respond to, get approval from or otherwise interact with the maintainers (or users for that matter). However, the designers will only accept this approach as a better way of working if it leads to better outcomes for the designers. “Better outcomes” might mean less time spent redesigning things that don’t work correctly or cannot be maintained, or more rewards or recognition for the design department. But internal change takes time; a professional sub-culture is quite stable, the basic assumptions about work and the profession’s role are shared around the world and across generations.

      As an aside, “How well the designers and maintainers work together” is usually quite visible across an organization. It’s an aspect of organizational climate that is fairly stable over time. It is the kind of artifact that CAN be assessed using a survey.


Thanks for your comment. We read them all. The moderator will publish comments that are related to our content.