- The perspective of the rule follower is the only one that matters. For a rule to be effective it needs to make sense to the people who are meant to follow the rule. Often we see a violation of a rule and the first assumption is that the person is the one at fault because we clearly see how the rule makes sense to us. But we forget that our perspective doesn’t matter. We aren’t the one who has to follow the rule. This leads to the second point.
- Given how much we rely on rules (and similar), we should devote more attention to understanding the perspective of our workers. Much of safety is designed around creating a standard and then ensuring everyone follows the standard. But, building on the first point, perhaps we should begin to understand more about the people who work for us. How do they see the world? What makes sense to them? What do they see as the challenges that inhibit their ability to do safe work and would do they think adding a rule would do to that? The most important attribute of a safety professional is empathy and we need to practice it in this case through asking good questions.
- And in doing so we see that rules are often not used in the way we think they are – they are more like guidelines than rules. It’s pretty common to hear people speak of someone who violated a rule and point to other people in the organization saying “they aren’t having trouble following the rule.” But often we have no evidence to back up this claim. All we really know most of the time is that we don’t have evidence that people are violating the rule. Others could be better at covering it up, or, more commonly, others may not be violating the rule, but they aren’t following it. Think about it, as people get better at a task they often do the task without much thought. This means that the written rule is not really doing much to enable their performance anymore. Often times it’s quite the opposite, as we just put rules in place without helping people know how to follow them. In some cases the workers find the way to do the work according to the rule in spite of the rule, not because of it.
- And then we see that calling them “controls” at all is misleading. A rule doesn’t have the ability to control anything because it is really nothing more than a “good idea” at best. It’s probably better to think of them as “influencing factors” or “guidelines.” Anyone who thinks that people can be easily controlled is obviously not a student of history or the social sciences.
- Rules should be resources for action. This means they should enable performance, i.e., help people know what they need to do to achieve goals. Ask your workers what rules help them get their job done and which ones do they merely have to overcome to get the work done. That will give you a clue as to where your rules are adding value and where they are holding you back.
- Have rules for your rules. We wrote a blog about this in the past, so you should check that out if you’re interested.
- Try conducting an Appreciative Audit on a rule or procedure. This requires taking a different lens to the audit – focus on identifying and appreciating how work is actually happening in a given process without judgment. Choose one rule or procedure in your organization and trace its movement through your organization. Start where the rule was developed (and why) and work your way down to how it is implemented, taking time to review how people have adopted the rule into how practice. Is it as was intended? Why or why not? Keep in mind what David Woods says – systems work as designed, but rarely as intended. What does how the rule/procedure was implemented tell you about how your system was designed and is functioning?
* A quick note regarding risk reduction. In this blog we were a bit flippant with the idea of risk reduction. Bear in mind that risk reduction is far more complicated than we are making it. Often risks we think have been eliminated or reduced simply have been transferred to other places. That's another topic for another post though.