Friday, February 22, 2013

Personal and Organizational Habits: A Threat to Safety Culture?

A book I received as a gift got me thinking about habits: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg.*  Following is a summary of selected points that we can relate to safety culture (SC) and our assessment of the book's usefulness for SC aficionados

Habits are automatic activity sequences people exhibit when they perceive specific triggering cues in the environment.  Habit behavior is learned, and directed toward achieving some reward, which may be physical or psychological.  The brain creates habits to conserve energy and operate more efficiently; without habits people would be overwhelmed by the countless decisions they would have to make to complete the most mundane tasks, e.g., driving to work.

People use habits at work to increase their productivity and get things done.  Unfortunately, habits can allow potential safety threats to slip through the cracks.  How?  Because while Rational Man considers all available alternatives before making a decision, and Satisficing Man consciously picks the first alternative that looks good enough, Habit Man is carrying out his behavior more or less unconsciously.  If the work environment contains weak signals of nascent problems or external environmental threats, then people following their work habits are not likely to pick up such signals.  Bad work habits may be the handmaiden of complacency.

Organizations also have habits (sometimes called routines).  Routines are important because, without them, it would be much more difficult to get work accomplished.  Routines reduce uncertainty throughout the organization and create truces between competing groups and individuals.  Some routines are the result of decisions made long ago, others evolve organically.  They are so embedded in the organization that no one questions them.**

Duhigg includes many case studies involving individuals and organizations.  One organizational case study is worth repeating because it focuses on changing safety habits.

When Paul O'Neill*** became Alcoa CEO in 1987 he made improving worker safety his first initiative.  He believed the habits that led to safety were keystone habits and if they could be changed (improved) then other business routines would follow.  In this case, he was correct.  Proper work routines are also the safest ones; over time quality and productivity improved and the stock price rose.  The new routines resulted in new values, e.g., intolerance for unsafe practices,  becoming ingrained in the culture.

The bottom line

I'd put this book in the self-help category—the strongest sections focus on individuals, how they can be crippled by bad habits, and how they can change those habits.  With the exception of the Alcoa case, this book is not really about SC so I'm not recommending it for our readers but it does stimulate thought about the role of unconscious habits and routines in reinforcing a strong SC, or facilitating its decay.  If work habits or routines become frozen and cannot (or will not) adjust to changes in the external or task environment, then performance problems will almost surely arise.      

*  C. Duhigg,  The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (New York: Random House 2012).  To simplify this post and focus on a linkage to SC, many of the book's concepts are not mentioned in the main text above.  For example, when the brain links the reward back to the cue, it creates a neurological craving; the stronger the craving, the more likely the cue will trigger the activities that lead to the reward.  Bad habits can be changed by inserting a new activity routine between the cue and the reward.  A belief that change is possible is needed before people will attempt to change their habits; willpower and self-discipline are necessary for changes to stick.  A real (or manufactured) crisis can make organizational routines amenable to change.

**  The result can be the worst kind of machine bureaucracy: rigid hierarchies, organizational silos, narrow employee responsibilities, and no information shared or questions asked.

***  O'Neill later served as U.S. Treasury Secretary during 2001-2002.

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