Safety Leadership: The false dichotomy of the ‘systems vs. culture’ debate
Editor’s Note: Achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. In this monthly column, experts from global consulting firm DEKRA share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to safety excellence.
In all industries, the question of whether to focus on systems or culture to improve exposure control is a reoccurring debate. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about occupational or process safety.
This question is pertinent when tackling serious events, particularly process safety events. For more than 30 years, efforts to improve serious injury, fatalities and process failures have had little success in shifting the trajectory of the trend line. In fact, performance is relatively stable.
What’s interesting about this debate is it leaves out the individual. After all, the focus of both culture development and systems is to enable the individual to identify exposure and provide them the tools and capabilities to control it.
We must acknowledge in this debate that systems are created by people, and people make mistakes. Systems are seldom perfect in design. Additionally, people manage the systems and they’ll make mistakes in how they apply the system.
As for culture, it’s not homeostatic across any organization – it can vary at the individual and work group level. Recall that “climate” is more narrowly defined than “culture.” Culture is the “way we do things around here,” whereas climate is the shared perceptions of the organization’s policies, practices and reward system. Serious climate pressures can overwhelm cultural norms. It takes an incredibly strong culture to resist these pressures.
Therefore, pitting systems against culture will only lead to continued defeat. It’s not an either/or question, but rather a combined systems and culture strategy that will win.
In his column, Avoid the false dichotomy of systems vs. culture, the late Scott Stricoff, DEKRA’s former president, noted that he had “reviewed dozens of investigations of significant safety incidents. Some of these are individual workplace fatalities, some are major process safety incidents. As you would expect, they vary greatly in nature and magnitude of impact, circumstances, industries involved and geographical location. But they all have one thing in common: They all involved both systems and cultural issues. 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.”
In the past, much of the thinking was that the system was more important than the culture – that safety problems would diminish if you could get the right system functioning in the right way. This was often paired with the belief that safety problems would diminish if you could define the right rules and get everyone to follow them. The underlying belief was culture couldn’t be shaped and the systems must be the default of human error.
Over the years, the pendulum swung to heavily favor culture. Many believed that if you could get the right culture, it would overcome barriers to safe work. When organizations come across things that take significant work to make safe behavior enabled or easier, such as design issues, staffing constraints or lack of capital equipment, it’s tempting to try to leverage the culture, hoping it’s strong enough to overcome these barriers versus changing the work.
If you accept a systems viewpoint, both of these strategies are flawed. It’s not a choice between systems and culture.
As safety leaders pursue the path of safety excellence – strengthening the culture, optimizing exposure control mechanisms, eliminating serious injuries and fatalities, and enhancing human performance reliability – a holistic strategy of both systems and culture is required for sustainable success.
This article represents the views of the authors and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.
Rebecca Timmins is senior vice president of DEKRA North America (dekra.us). She is an organizational safety industry expert who helps clients improve leadership, safety and governance by planning and implementing sustainable data collection processes and feedback mechanisms that target specific areas of risk.
Direct to your inbox: Sign up to be notified in email about new "Safety Leadership" columns.