Final Plenary lecture: Sidney Dekker

We were delighted to have Sidney Dekker speak as our final plenary of the conference. Like Sir Charles Haddon-Cave, he is not a fan of powerpoint, as this tweet showing his single slide that remained on the screen throughout his talk:

clearly demonstrates! But, like Sir Charles, he was an engaging and entrancing speaker, with a completely different, animated style (and I say this as someone who has been described as an ‘enthusiastic’ presenter – I am sure that Sidney is one of the few people in the world who could out-talk me in a talking competition!), but a similarly liberal serving of wisdom and inspiration.

As many of his compatriots and co-authors, notably David Woods and Erik Hollnagel, Sidney is very keen that E/HF moves beyond a focus on failure, error and incidents. He presented the astonishing figure that stated that 1 in 10 Australian workers are engaged in compliance and bureaucracy as part of their work. He argued that we must move away from statistics around performance, and that “we [E/HF practitioners] are about the presence of positives, not the absence of negatives”. He argued strongly for a systems perspective, and a focus on the system conditions, not the actions of individuals.

He made a clear point about the relationship between performance statistics and blame – if you’re counting human error, you’re implying attribution. He also argued against the aspiration to have an ‘error-free’ environment, using the example of his house with a mum, dad, and three kids:

He said much, much, more, and encouraged us all to have the resolve to commit to move away from counting and analysis, and towards supporting positive capacities within work systems, and to intervene in the conditions of work.

A few things struck me about this talk.

1. This is all easier said than done. As we identified in our art, craft and science session, we work within organisations that have audits, expectations and processes. How do we get the balance between making sure we can demonstrate the value of E/HF, and thus encourage further investment, but move away from ‘counting’? Many of us have really achieved success when we have had a senior manager as our ‘champion’ who has seen the value of embedding someone with E/HF in a multidisciplinary team (such as has happened in rail, Air traffic control or healthcare settings for example) or where there have been clear demonstrations of success of E/HF intervention, such as previously poorly functioning team turning their performance around. But, also, many of us have been brought in after things have gone wrong, perhaps as a result of new research investment, or, worse, as a result of the need to ‘show’ that things are being done.

2. How do we get examples of situations that have the same resonance as incidents or disasters to make the point that E/HF matters? I’ve said this in discussions with Erik Hollnagel in the past – Safety II makes complete sense, but, unfortunately, incidents, and normally the bad publicity that goes with them, cause managers to sit up and pay attention. We need the same type of effect from positive intervention.

3. Sidney Dekker and Sir Charles Haddon-Cave agreed on a lot. They agreed on the limited value of powerpoint, were both dubious about reliance on MBAs. They were nervous about the perils of ‘paper safety’ – the reliance on paperwork that shows safety, rather than the action of behaving safely. They encouraged us to challenge, and advocated empowerment of individuals. When two such brilliant speakers, with such different personalities, with two such different perspective and expertise, agree on things, it really does suggest that they might well be talking an awful lot of sense.

Final Plenary lecture: Sidney Dekker

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