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The Risk

How to make virgin managers care about safety

Submitted by Leonidas » Mon 25-Feb-2013, 10:43

Subject Area: Safety

Keywords: leveson, safery, motivation, safety critical, software, blood

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My heart tells me that all senior managers responsible for safety related complex systems development should have a thorough education in safety critical systems engineering but my head tells me it is a bridge too far. Senior people typically aren't interested in the subject unless they've had some personal life transforming event. The problem is motivation.
The core reason is this: I have never heard of an organisation implementing a safety program without first experiencing a loss incident. Safety engineering is written in blood, misery and loss. Without experience of loss there is no awareness. You've got to be once bitten to be twice shy.
If anyone in this forum knows of a chief executive who woke up one morning and decided to go to the board of directors with a proposal to spend large sums of money on making sure nothing bad happens when, to date, nothing bad HAS happened, please give me his phone number I would like to touch the hem of his garment.

In her book "Engineering a Safer World", Nancy Leveson uses the example of SUBSAFE which had its origin in the loss of the nuclear submarine Thresher. The order to implement SUBSAFE came from the father of the US nuclear navy Hyman Rickover. I used to get a hamburger and fries at Great Oak pizza on Route 12 near the New London sub base. In those days you could eat yourself stupid for a buck 50. It was also a hang for sub mariners. The walls were festooned with pictures of submarines and men crazy enough to go down. In those days you could even get on a bus and do a tour of the base driving past the wharf where the nuclear subs were parked. Rickover was a legend there. A truly enlightened leader. But even he had to experience the Thresher disaster before a major safety safety program was put in place.

It's unfortunate that the section on managing safety and the safety culture in Nancy's book starts at step two: "if managers understand the importance of safety in achieving organisational goals and decide they want to improve safety in their organisations ...".
Step one is acquiring the motivation.

Section 13.1 why should managers care about and invest in safety? Starts out with "Most managers do care about safety." Going into review mode I'd call this an incorrect fact. 100% of managers would say they care about safety but when it involves spending money and delaying deliveries they tend to fall by the wayside. This is not true in companies with strong safety cultures. And without exception these cultures have grown up over years of blowing things up, loss of life and loss of money. Expecting a manager who has not experienced loss to spend money to prevent loss is fundamentally against human nature. Would soldiers go to war if they thought they were going to be killed? Of course not, it happens to someone else.

The only solution I have is to take virgin managers (those who have not yet seen any blood) aside and tell them some horror stories. Documented case studies can be extremely compelling especially if they point out those incidents in time when senior managers could have saved lives by making informed decisions. More on storytelling here: http://bit.ly/YyNS6x


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