Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Avoid the false dichotomy of systems vs. culture

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Recently, there has been a surprising resurgence in the question of whether systems or culture is the better place to focus when working on safety improvement. This debate was addressed years ago, but it seems to be resurrecting – to the detriment of progress. The question is particularly noticeable when discussing process safety and other serious events. Despite significant attention for 20-plus years, little success in reducing these types of incidents has been made. It is understandable, then, that some may wish to retread old ground when the current path doesn’t seem to be leading anywhere. But that makes the dichotomy no less dangerous.

So what is the truth about systems and culture, and how should leaders approach this question?

I have a relatively unique perspective on both sides of this issue. I am a chemical engineer, MBA and CSP who has been trained in systems thinking and has studied total quality management and Six Sigma. I began my more than 40-year career in safety by conducting hazard analysis and quantitative risk assessments, and then spent many years working on management systems for both injury prevention and process safety management. For the past 18 years I have been working with organizations on safety culture, leadership and behavior.

I have reviewed literally dozens of investigations of significant safety incidents. Some of these are individual workplace fatalities, and some are major process safety incidents. As you would expect, they vary greatly in terms of nature and magnitude of impact, specific facts of the situation, industries involved, and geographical location. But they have one thing in common: In every case, both systems and cultural issues are involved in the incident, and they are interrelated. Systems, no matter how well designed, do not function reliably without the right culture – and culture, no matter how strong, cannot reliably compensate for flawed systems.

Sorting fact from fiction

Often, the belief that systems are more important than culture comes from an underlying view that culture cannot be influenced, so systems must “compensate” for the shortcomings of individuals, which are encouraged by culture. Meanwhile, the belief that culture is more important than systems frequently stems from the belief that systems will always fail and so we are ultimately dependent on people’s behavior. Neither of these points of view is completely accurate. The reality is that culture and systems work in complex ways that can’t be summed up in black-and-white statements.

Here’s what we know: Improving the design of systems can improve their reliability. For example, by removing ambiguity and improving ease of following the system, we can achieve more consistent performance. But systems are executed by people, and the behavior of people influences the results we achieve. Conversely, instilling and reinforcing leadership behaviors that drive a strong safety culture increases behavioral reliability and safety-related discretionary effort. But ultimately we need effective systems to ensure the consistent and supportive behavior is effective in achieving the desired goals.

When operations leaders and/or safety professionals commit to the belief that the “right” or “best” answer to safety improvement is either systems or culture, they sub-optimize their efforts. Their safety initiatives become like a jumbo jet flying on one engine. Technically it can work – at least for a little while – but the susceptibility to failure is too great for sustained, dependable performance. Focusing on both systems and culture in a coordinated way is the key to true safety excellence.

Scott Stricoff is president of BST, where he oversees BST’s consulting and client partnerships to enhance safety management and culture. Stricoff is a noted thought leader with demonstrated expertise in process safety and hazard analysis, occupational health and safety, and environmental and public health.


This article represents the views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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