Research/studies Safety culture

Well-conducted After Action Reviews can improve safety, researchers say

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Omaha, NE — After Action Reviews, if conducted well, can improve organizational safety, according to a recent study of firefighters published by researchers from the University of Nebraska, Omaha and the University of North Carolina, Charlotte.

An AAR is a discussion of an event among colleagues to make sense of what happened and why, in an effort to improve weaknesses and maintain strengths. The study authors define AARs as “more formal than a conversation but less formal than an annual review meeting.”

The researchers surveyed 119 firefighters from one department on what makes AARs effective and what effect good behaviors – how people behaved during meetings – have on the quality of AARs.

The study was conducted in two phases. The first phase consisted of a two-question survey to determine what the firefighters believe distinguishes good AARs from bad AARs.

The most frequently cited “good” answers included “safe environment,” “asking for honest feedback” and “accepting responsibility.” The most common “bad” answers were “assigning blame” and “aggressive sharing environment.”

The second phase focused on how good meeting behavior among AAR participants can affect the results of AARs, particularly in what researchers call “high-reliability organizations.”

Members of high-reliability organizations “have learned how to manage error and risk in a way that has made them remarkably accident-free despite the inherent dangers of their respective industries,” the study states. “These organizations … develop organizational practices that promote a higher attention to detail due to mindfulness, which is characterized by a greater focus on failure and avoiding oversimplification, among other features.”

Using answers received during the first phase, the researchers constructed assessments in four categories: AAR attendee behavior, perceived AAR frequency, AAR satisfaction and group safety norms. The assessments were compared to the researchers’ four hypotheses:

  • Good attendee behaviors are positively related to AAR meeting satisfaction.
  • Good attendee behaviors are positively related to group safety norms.
  • Perceived frequency of AARs moderates the relationship between good attendee behaviors and AAR meeting satisfaction, such that the positive relationship is stronger when frequency of AARs is high.
  • Perceived frequency of AARs moderates the relationship between good attendee behaviors and group safety norms, such that the positive relationship is stronger when frequency of AARs is high.

All the hypotheses were supported by data analysis, and researchers concluded that frequent and consistent AARs are important for safety climate – as well as camaraderie and team building – when good behaviors are practiced. They suggest that high-reliability organizations host more AARs, and not only promote good AAR behavior, but actively reject bad AAR behavior – investigating ways to promote AARs as a certification opportunity, for example.

“Knowing how to hold proper meetings allows individuals to make salient their organizational role and helps facilitate sensemaking,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the July edition of Safety Science.

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