Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Blind Spots of Behavioral Observation Programs

Behavioral observation programs are a mainstay in many safety systems that are looking to move beyond compliance and get employees involved. The idea is pretty straightforward – have employees observe other employees doing job tasks. The observers then judge whether the behavior is “safe” or “unsafe” and provide immediate feedback to the employees who did the tasks. You seem to accomplish a lot with a program such as this, including:
  • Immediate and specific feedback to employees for “unsafe” behaviors, which enhances learning;
  • Employees get involved in the process and take ownership of safety at the site; and,
  • You get another feedback loop that you can use to identify exposures and risks at the site (you can also use it as a handy metric).

This sounds like a panacea for all your safety performance needs. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem with most behavioral observation programs is that they don’t account for some blind spots that the programs tend to have, both practical and foundational.

Let’s start with an example of the practical – First, when it comes to identifying “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors, your employees are far more likely to identify obvious “unsafe” behaviors that lead to smaller accidents than they are to identify the less obvious behaviors that are more of a grey area and, coincidentally, are more associated with serious injuries and disasters. So, for example, behavioral observation programs are very good at identifying whether or not employees are using the required PPE for a given task. However, these programs are not very good at identifying whether technical procedures that are only indirectly related to safety are being followed or even if those procedures are adequate for the reality the employees are facing. In cases where deviance from procedures is normalized you might have employees note a given task as “safe” because that’s the way the job is normally done, without realizing the risks involved. So the program provides an unreliable data source, causing you to think that your system is “safe” when, in reality, you are drifting toward danger.

The bottom line from a practical perspective – behavior observation works for obvious behaviors. If “safe” and “unsafe” behaviors are not as obvious though then the behavior observation program may be a false indicator. 

This leads to the foundational blind spot of behavior observation programs – the programs tend to assume that behavior is either “safe” or it is “unsafe.” This is categorically false. Behavior is inherently tied to the context and almost any behavior you can think of, if put in another context, is either safe or unsafe. Even the proverbial safety “no-no,” running with scissors, is sometimes the right thing to do (medical professionals run with scissors all the time in emergency situations).

Now it may be possible to identify a behavior that is always unsafe (using some definition of “safe” and “unsafe”), no matter what the context. But that’s not the point. If we really have to think hard to find something that’s always an unsafe behavior, is the idea that behavior is either “safe” or “unsafe” a really useful concept?

What if instead of a behavioral observation program we just had a performance observation program? Instead of judging whether the employee is doing things right or wrong, we just observe and try to understand how employees are doing work. Then, we ask questions (not just about the things we think they did wrong!), listen to stories, trying to find the best way to do the job in the context that the job is to be done. With the rich understanding of the reality the employees at the sharp end face, instead of telling them that what they are doing is wrong, we give them the tools (equipment, knowledge, time, etc.) they need to learn to adapt their behaviors to the contexts they face. We move past the obvious things and get to the real story of how work is performed in the organization. We move from a place of judgment to a place of cooperation. Then we not only get the basic advantages of traditional behavior observation programs noted above, we also eliminate the blind spots and build a foundation of trust between ourselves and the real source of safety in our organizations – our workers.

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