Complacency And The Cinnabon Shop

Recently, I heard a presentation by Gabriel Acosta-Mikulasek, PhD., a behavioral anthropologist. (Right here you are probably thinking about clicking away, but before you do……..)
Part of the 2012 ASSE Bakersfield Chapter PDC, the presentation was fascinating and provided me with a better understanding of how workers become complacent and what can be done to combat it.

A master in understanding human performance and influencing self-awareness, Dr. Acosta-Mikulasek (Gabriel) shared his experience working with Chevron’s San Joaquin Valley Drilling and Completions Department. Safety is a major concern and until recently injuries had been increasing, and even thought to be beyond control. Known for his work in performance improvement, Gabriel had been brought in by Chevron to study the problem and offer solutions.

For several months he observed and studied the working culture and performance practices of the drilling/work over crews and their supervisors. Through casual conversations, one of the main concerns frequently discussed was complacency. This hidden factor that often results in unsafe behavior can be a significant challenge in any professional field, but of particular concern in an environment where serious injuries happen in an instant and safety is paramount. Oil field work is dangerous, so being aware of hazards and developing issues is important. But due to the work and its rough neck culture it’s often downplayed or overlooked.

Gabriel was uniquely qualified to understand complacency in humans. For several years he studied this human behavior and how biological and cultural influences result in complacent tendencies. As complex as this might sound, he was able to create a “work-around” for Chevron. During his presentation in Bakersfield he shared the findings as they applied to the oil field workers and how his suggestions were put to work to increase awareness and combat complacency.

Irresistable Yet Forgetable

To begin, he asked the audience to close their eyes and imagine going with a friend to a Cinnabon Shop. Before you even get inside what do you experience? Wonderful and inviting, the heavenly sweet smell of cinnamon rolls of course. Your mouth is watering as you place the order. Then, later after you’ve finished your cinnamon roll and a second cup of coffee what has happened? You no longer notice the smell. Did you choose to not have that great smell sensation? Did you become sensitized? No. As this relates to complacency, you are now focusing on other things and subconsciously have released the immediate awareness of the smell.

This is the same phenomena that occurs when we develop work habits. In the beginning we had to pay much greater attention to the specific elements or tasks of a job. But over time we tend to go on autopilot and function without thinking. To draw a parallel, when was the last time you were driving home from work, got home and realized you couldn’t remember the past 15 minutes?! In this state we may begin to subconsciously change how we do a given job, and even take short-cuts. If nothing happens we not only keep varying the procedures, but may drift even further away from the “safe” way. We haven’t chosen to be complacent or to work unsafely, it just sort of happens. Humans try to work in the most efficient manner and have a tendency to experiment or deviate from the prescribed procedure. Over time this deviation can become the new way the job is done. This is explained by the human factor experts (Reason, Dekker, etc.) as normalization of deviation or drift. It’s at the core of how many accidents occur.

From Gabriel’s research into biological, social, and psychological responses he hypothesizes that complacency is not a choice, but a subconscious response to the normal world around us. It is a normal behavioral response to the known. The mind blocks out or filters on its own. Complacency sets in on its own terms, quietly and unannounced. We are wired that way because as a species and for survival reasons we pay attention to that which is new and throw the old or “known” to the background. Therefore, because we don’t actively choose to be complacent around obvious danger, telling a person to not be complacent and pay attention simply will not work. Specificity is required.

Gabriel took a different approach with the Chevron oil field workers and their supervisors. He began by talking with them about their various work tasks and why they did work the way they did. He was able to point out short-cuts that increased risk and disregarded hazards. He began to teach the people about complacency, how it sets in and why it’s important to guard against. From his research and months of observations he designed a process that raised awareness and greatly improved performance. As simple as it may sound, he held individual and group conversations on the phenomena of complacency with crew members and supervisors. He worked at several levels in the organization and across several work teams.

The results have been positive, with an observable deeper understanding of the work hazards and the danger of becoming complacent. This has also resulted in a corresponding increase in diligence to self-monitor one own state of complacency. The outcome is that the crews and supervisors report having greater awareness and safer behavior for themselves and those working around them. This improved collective state of awareness is contributing directly to the Chevron goal of Incident Free Operations.

Of course there’s a lot more to the story than this, but discussing work hazards and observing individual worker behavior is not new. What is new is the active discussion of the danger of complacency and how individuals can stop unconscious at-risk behavior before it bites them. The other difference in the Chevron approach is that it focused on honest conversations, group dynamics and shared trust. Imagine shutting down all the Chevron drilling rigs in the San Joaquin Valley on a rainy day due to muddy conditions. That happened recently and no one was upset or disciplined for stopping the work. Slips and falls are a common source of injury, and especially when the conditions are wet and muddy. So when several workers pointed this out, the supervisors were empowered to do the right thing and stopped work. A good lesson for others and a really good way to keep safety top-of-mind.