Thursday, May 7, 2015

Accidents As Investments

To a recent post of ours, an important safety researcher in the field, Dr. Richard Cook left an interesting and important comment speaking of a specific case study that was referenced in our post: 
It is, perhaps, telling that the argument that I used with this company that finally prevailed after the accident was this: "Your company has just made an unplanned and irrevocable investment in safety. It is up to you to decide whether you will get any return on this investment."
 I meant this quite literally: they had spent millions of dollars in the lost production and people time spent managing the accident but had done almost nothing to extract any value from the event. And this investment was much more than they spent on "safety" programs. Changing the direction was a matter of pointing out to them that the accident was a huge investment (albeit unplanned) in safety and it was in their business interest to treat it as such. Accidents are so disruptive and damaging that it is hard to think of them as investments. But the entire accident, including its direct and indirect costs (e.g. increase in insurance premiums) can and should be considered an investment. Reversing the language from “cost” to “investment” is key to getting the attention of management.
What an interesting and important shift in perspective. The traditional narrative in safety management following an accident is one of costs. We talk about what accidents cost the organization in the hopes that those costs drive action toward safety improvement. We debate the ratio of direct to indirect costs of accidents, with indirect costs taking up the bulk of the costs, at least that’s how the theory goes. What we’re really looking for is learning. We’re hoping that our organizations see the accident (whether real or potential) as something to avoid and change their behavior as a result.

But what if part of the problem is how we’re framing the problem? If the narrative we bring to management is all about costs, we create an environment where the only option is an escape from loss. This is inherently demotivating much of the time. If, as Dr. Cook recommends, we change the discussion from loss to potential gain (i.e., investment) there may be more motivational capital there. The thing is that after an accident happens, the organization has already invested the resources (time, money, etc., all those things that we call direct and indirect costs). The choice is now the organization’s whether they want to protect their investment by learning and improving, or if they will waste their investment.

As Dr. Cook points out, this shift in language may seem somewhat odd, or perhaps even perverse to some. Accidents are bad things, after all. This is true and no one is arguing that we want more accidents. However, accidents do continue to happen. The organization can choose to see the accident as merely a cost, which, like other organizational costs, can be simply budgeted for year after year (we’ve seen many organizations that do just that! Talk about a habituating practice!). Or, the organization can choose to see accidents as opportunities to get better at what they do. To put it another way, using another concept in safety management, although accidents are traditionally viewed as a lagging metric of safety performance, learning is so crucial to enabling safety, the way organizations respond to accidents are a leading metric (and yes, it’s something you can measure).


Now, this might seem like a subtle, perhaps meaningless change. After all, all we’re saying is that you should just change the words you use when talking about accidents. What difference can that make? A profound difference actually. As the Appreciative Inquiry community is fond of saying – words create worlds. But don’t take our word for it, just try it. Just start referring to accidents as investments and see how people in your organization respond. The results might surprise you.

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