Thursday, August 28, 2014

Why Models Matter in Safety

Photo Credit - +IFLScience 

Many times blogs, articles, discussions, etc. like ours are criticized because they don’t always speak to specifics. This is a fair criticism. We do talk about specific aspects of safety (such as here, here, and here), but most of the time we’re talking about how to approach or think about safety. So, it’s easy to see how sometimes we can come off as a little abstract in our posts.

Criticisms not withstanding, we do feel it’s important that we keep discussing the things we’re discussing. Basically, what we’re trying to do is get you all to prescribe to the same way of thinking as we do. Put another way, we want you to buy in to the model of safety that we have bought into.

Ok, there we go getting all abstract again, but let’s take a step back and talk about why it’s important to be abstract and talk about models every once in while. What is the purpose of a mental model? From a social science perspective, a mental model helps you conserve mental resources. If every time you thought about an environment you had to figure out how each piece of the environment worked together you would waste a lot of time. So, instead your brain constructs a model and uses that model to understand the environment.

Let’s use an example, you go into a restaurant and immediately your restaurant mental model (or, sometimes called a schema) activates. So you don’t have to waste time wondering who the people bringing food to the other people who are sitting at tables are. You have a script in your mind about what is normal in a restaurant and what isn’t. This script leads to certain expectations that are completely arbitrary, if it weren’t for the mental model you have (e.g. that the waiter/waitress has to come to you, that they provide a menu, and that you can only order food that is on the menu). In a way, the model you have constrains what is and isn’t possible, at least in your mind.

One of the biggest problems with the safety profession today is that everyone has a mental model of safety and very few people take the time to figure out what it is. Think about it. Why do you do what you do as a safety professional? For example, you get hired into an organization – what are your first actions and why? Most safety professionals we’ve dealt with base the majority of their actions in the profession on (a) what everyone else has done or is doing (i.e. the popular thing), and/or (b) what they feel has “worked” in their own direct past experience.

Of course, this can work, but only to a point. The problem is that this means that safety professionals are constantly looking backwards. We do what we do based on what we believe has worked in the past. If things never change, or if the organizations that we’re “benchmarking” with are the same as us then this approach will be just fine. But we work in unique organizations that are constantly changing, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in dynamic ways. This means the things that worked yesterday may not work today.

Additionally, just relying on anecdotal evidence (i.e. “that’s what’s worked before”) leaves people incredibly vulnerable to stubbornly holding on to discredited ideas and interventions. For example, some of our posts have criticized the use of rules or procedures to create safety (for example, here, here, and here). The response to these posts has been very favorable for most, but some challenge our ideas. After continued discussion though these people often resort to using evidence such as “procedures work because they have worked in the past.” (And then we wonder why our employees counter our proposed changes with “but that’s the way we’ve always done it.”)

We don’t intend to say that these people are dumb or that we’re better than them (we all need critical evaluation of our ideas to get us closer to the truth). Instead, we believe that part of the reason people have trouble accepting new ideas is that they base their old ideas on their experience (which social science has shown to be consistently deceiving), not on a model that can be seen as separate from themselves, and therefore analyzed in a non-threatening way.

If instead we all understood the mental models that provide foundation for the way we view safety in our organizations it would be easier understand why we do what we do. For example, much of the way safety professionals approach procedures is based on a model where people cannot be trusted to figure the best (or safest) way to do a job on their own. They either are deficient in their knowledge or in their motivation. Further, we can, separate from the work environment, identify the one best (or, at least, most acceptable) way to do that job.

By identifying those assumptions within the mental model of what Sidney Dekker calls the “old view” of procedures it is much easier to identify whether those assumptions are true and, therefore, if the mental model should be utilized or discarded.


So, next time you’re thinking of recommending a change in your organization, or you’re conducting an incident investigation, what is the mental model you’re using and what assumptions is the model based on? This could be one of the most important steps in the process.

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