Want Success In Safety? Stop The “Blame Game”

Earlier today I received a discussion update from one of my LinkedIn groups.  Because I have been so busy lately I haven’t participated much with LinkedIn, much less responded to the ongoing discussions.  But this one caught my eye.  The discussion asked the question,  “What’s the critical element in achieving EHS excellence?”.  Some of you might see this as a loaded question and impossible to answer, but I decided to respond for two reasons:  to see how others will weigh in, and because I have an opinion.

As some of you know, I have spent a good deal of time studying human factors and human error.  Motivated by an ASSE symposium presentation with Todd Conklin and then from reading books by James Reason, Sydney Dekker, Gerald Wilde,  David Marx, Seth Godin, Shawn Anchor, Edward Decci, Daniel Pink and others, I have come to the not so brilliant conclusion that W. Edwards Demming was right.  Demming said, “In order to achieve organizational success you must drive out fear.”   So, without providing another 10,000 words of detail here’s my response to the question posed on LinkedIn:

“This is a very complex question with a multitude of potential answers, all based on the context of the situation.  However, looking at the question in a universal manner, eliminating blame from the culture is where I would focus. It is my experience that in order to have a culture that values safety in all areas of operation, from the top down and throughout engineering system design, the one common element for safety success is the active elimination of blame.  The “Blame Game” creates huge obstacles that make the creation of a sustainable safety culture almost impossible.  Blame exacerbates fear, stops authentic communication and the willingness to learn, creates wedge relationships of “us vs. them”, establishes irrational biases and eliminates intrinsic motivation.  Good luck with your behavior based safety initiative!  Safety success is nearly impossible in this type of climate.

Most of what has been written on human error and organizational improvement points to the importance of  understanding organizational influences and the overall context of work.  When we are in the blame mode we shift responsibility to the individual and away from others and the organization.  This creates a culture that never looks deeply enough to find the real causes of incidents, never exploring system design and the organizational influencers to find the root of the problem.

Eliminating blame throughout the organization opens up the ability to discuss and learn, evaluate design based on fact not bias, takes the person as the problem out of the equation, increases reporting of near-miss incidents and other problems, allows engineering and system design to focus on acceptable risk and the hierarchy of controls, establishes safety as a primary management responsibility (as well as the entire workforce), allows supervisors to have real conversations with workers, and allows everyone to work for the continuous improvement of the organization.  Moreover, the elimination of blame allows those who are responsible to step forward and to work in a collaborative manner for the to correct problems and enhance system design.  Personal responsibility will grow and teamwork can flourish.  Regardless of which books you read or speakers you hear, when both James Reason and W. Edwards Demming speak of driving fear and blame from the organization in order to achieve success, you can rest assured you are on the right track.

How would you respond to the question, I’m curious.  Thanks for reading and please share with others.