Frequently asked Questions about "Safety, leadership and learning – A practical guide to HOP".

Does accepting that there is a gap between “work-as-imagined” vs “work-as-done” legitimize non-compliance?

There is always a gap between how we think work is being performed and how it actually performed, either because the planning was different to the reality, or that the work has changed over time, or that in the task it is necessary for the workers to adapt to get the job done.  However, this does not legitimize non-compliance to the rules.  Instead it leads us to look at the reality of work, and the difficult-to-see risks, where work appears to have been “successful” but actually many adaptations were made. So we ask the frontline “what is making the work difficult?” and if it is possible for them to follow the rules, so that they can explain the issues.  The shift is from “follow the rules or you will be punished” to “follow the rules, and if you can’t, then speak up”. We want requirements and procedures to be “owned” by the workforce. 

It feels like saying that “context drives behaviour” is a removal of accountability?

This approach does not mean an absence of accountability. We tackle the workplace contexts that influence actions and decisions, as well as supporting people to be equipped to deal with situations they find themselves in.  On the rare occasion that someone intends harm, normal disciplinary processes apply.  However, even here there is a duty on the organisation to understand the context and conditions that influenced people’s actions. Harmful acts can result from issues that an organisation must address (such as frustration with dangerous equipment or a communication breakdown) or circumstances where individuals need support (such as mental ill-health).

This is nothing new, why should we spend time and energy on this?

While its correct that this approach is about understanding incident causation through the many combining causal factors, and looking for risk in the workplace to prevent incidents, the following points are novel:

  • the way we define safety is not the absence of incidents, but the quality of how work is set up. A focus on outcomes or lagging indicators prevents learning from everyday work. A “perfect HSE-day” is not a day where there are no incidents, but a day where we have the capability to improve and reduce the possibility a major incident. 
  • there will always be a gap between how we think the workplace is set up “work-as-imagined” and how it is in reality “work-as-done”.  This helps us understand why things don’t go to plan, and why people make mistakes.
  • we respond supportively when things go wrong, since we have good people and they are only doing what anyone else would do under those circumstances. 

This is too much new. I’m worried that we will create confusion, how do we prevent that?

Yes there is a lot new in this approach, however it fits with our values and the work that we do to foster a transparent and trusting culture.  Many companies link this to their cultural advancement. Often, companies have a phased implementation starting with the engagement of senior leaders, followed by wider awareness-building of operations leaders, followed by implementing updates to existing processes e.g. modernising incident investigation to look at influencing factors. A “speak-up culture” built on trust and a collective effort to find improvements, will stabilize the organisation.

This is too simple, how will it give us value?

It may seem simple to move away from blame and to look at the underlying issues that lead to incidents, but it is a big shift in terms of how we learn. We explain to leaders that they cannot wait for failure to be able to see risk.  Instead of thinking that safety is the absence of incidents, and continuing an illusion of safety when there are no major incidents, we look at systemic weaknesses and small issues to get ahead of incidents. This approach opens up a fearless conversation about the quality of workplace setup. 

This is too abstract for us to engage the organisation

There is a vast amount of academic work on this approach, since it started in the 1950s in aviation and the 1970s in nuclear, as well as active research in oil and gas, construction, pharmaceuticals and health care in recent years.  Therefore the terminology and concepts may sometimes become removed from everyday language. It is the mission of “HOP ambassadors” in our organisation to make the concepts easy to understand and apply, e.g. by sharing case studies and examples of successful implementation. 

We have too much on our plate, and too many competing priorities, how do we make space?

It is important to prioritise effort to the areas that will most quickly and effectively reduce risk, so we will focus on our speak-up culture through leader role-modelling and how we update our work processes.  Other companies that implement the HOP approach have discontinued low value processes, such as behaviour-based safety with the frontline.

This is the flavour of the month, so what?

This approach is well-embedded in many companies and has taken them beyond the compliance culture, towards discovering the reality of risk that their frontline are struggling with. Those companies also had concerns about sustainability, and that is why implementation involved updating the existing processes of those companies to embed the change e.g. incident investigation, risk assessment, procedure writing/updates, design of equipment, managing critical tasks, self-verification, safety indicators and safety conversations.