Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Map Is Not The Territory – Thinking Differently About Job Safety Planning

During a recent assessment we were doing at a fairly large and complex organization, we were provided a document from the organization that showed a listing of the risks that the organization was aware of and actively managing. One of the listings related to health and safety risks to employees and stated that the source of the risk included the organization not designing a safe workspace and not ensuring that employees followed safety procedures. This makes sense on its face and is a laudable goal overall (especially the part about design). A lot of safety professionals and managers have the mindset that if only we could get employees to follow the safety rules, procedures, plans, etc. that we have laid out for them, we would achieve the results we want.

In 1931, Alfred Korzybski delivered a paper at a conference in New Orleans to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the paper Korzybski made the point that “the map is not the territory.” Maps are just abstractions, or models of reality. They are a snapshot with only a finite amount of detail. Any model is inherently wrong, but some are useful, so the saying goes, and in the same way, by reducing the detail of the territory to something that is easy to read, as a map needs to be, it creates inaccuracy. Even if we were somehow able to create a map with perfect accuracy, a true snapshot, our world is constantly changing. So after a time, our perfect map will be inaccurate.

What are job safety plans (by this we include procedures, rules, job plans, job hazard analyses/job safety analyses, critical task analyses, permit systems, etc.), if not “maps” that direct an employee on how to do a job “safely”? All of these are supposed to be tools to help the employee navigate the complexity of the job in a way that helps them avoid injury. But, if we apply Korzybski’s dictum, in the same way that the map is not the territory, our job safety plans are not the job. There will always be abstractions or models of the job to be done. We will always shed some detail to enhance the readability and usability of the plan, and, even if we didn’t shed the detail, jobs change over time, so our plans quickly become inaccurate, if they ever were. Like the best cartographers, the best we can hope for is “accurate enough.”

The problem is that in the safety profession we have somehow taken our plan as gospel and equated it with safety – if we follow the plan we are safe, if we deviate then we are unsafe. We have built our management systems on the principle that the secret to safety is better planning. If we have a failure (e.g. an accident) it’s because either someone deviated from our plan or our planners didn’t do a good enough job (notice the underlying tone of human failure and blame that is woven in that narrative!).

But this all assumes that our plan will encompass every situation that we face, and that is impossible! The old military adage “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is something most have heard of, but in the safety profession we have ignored its lesson. By assuming that if we have a failure it has to be a problem with those executing the plan or those developing the plan, we have ignored an obvious third option – the problem could be our faith in plans.

Now we are not arguing that we should dispense with all forms of job safety planning. The point is that the idea that we can plan for everything is utterly false. If that’s true then deviations from our plan should not surprise us. That doesn’t mean that they are acceptable deviations, but that also doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad. A deviation could just be people having to adapt the plan to reality, the same way someone would have to adapt a map to the territory they are navigating.

So how should we approach planning if plans are always inaccurate? As Dwight Eisenhower said “in preparing for battle, I have always found plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.” Think about that quote for a second – plans are useless, planning is indispensible. Pretty profound, right? What Eisenhower said here is that we should see plans for what they really are – the outcome of a planning process. And it’s the planning process that is useful, not the plan itself. Why? Because the planning process involves people doing what they do best – thinking through their world, solving problems, and collaborating. Conversely, plans lead people to operate at their worst –mindlessly conducting tasks.

In line with this philosophy, here are some tips for enhancing your planning processes:
  • Whenever possible involve people with diverse opinions. You want a healthy mix of technical expertise and real-world experience. At a minimum, always involve people who actually do the work.
  • Identify signals that people doing the work can use to quickly identify that the reality of the work is different than the plan, and give them tools necessary to adapt to those situations (including, but not limited to “stop work” authority).
  • Identify any critical steps in the process (i.e., steps that if done incorrectly would lead to irrevocable and unacceptable harm) and analyze those closely to build in defenses that help operators complete these tasks successfully (e.g., removing distractions, ensuring adequate resources, etc.).
  • Consider implementing debriefing sessions for the task, so you can learn from normal, successful operations. What worked? What didn’t? What surprised you? Etc.


  1. Thanks Ron - good insight as always. We have developed the Mantra for the guys "STOP - THINK - ASK" because we don't want them to be mindless robots - but want them to understand the why and be able to adapt to change.

  2. I love it Lori! Great initiative!


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