What does chronic unease look like in practice?
Accidents don’t just happen when things are going badly; they often happen when things appear to be going well. Jodi Goodall, of Brady Heywood, explains the concept of chronic unease in high hazard industries like quarrying, and how it can be applied in practice.
The principles apply just as well in the construction industry.
Following a serious accident in his workshop, where one of his most experienced maintenance team members had both of his legs crushed, the workshop manager confided to me that it felt “out of the blue”. His workshop had an excellent safety reputation.
The event occurred during a crane lift of a large steel pipe. The pipe dislodged, knocked a nearby team member to the floor and rolled onto his legs. He would never walk again.
Afterwards, when the investigation was complete, what frustrated the workshop manager most was that he already knew most of these issues. Similar incidents had happened, but with no bad outcome … They had a PO in the system to get the right lifting equipment … He himself, had observed that as they got busier there were too many jobs going on with too little space … The end of month bonus did encourage the team to take shortcuts to complete the jobs on time … The list went on.
Investigations are helpful for bringing out vital learnings from incidents. But in my experience investigations also cause good business leaders anguish over actions not taken in hindsight – not to mention the devastating impacts of the incidents themselves. So rather than waiting for people in our group to suffer before we take stock and act, we can instead understand the techniques that best-in-class businesses use to prevent serious accidents altogether.
There are organisations out there that manage to maintain near-accident-free performance over many decades, despite operating in high hazard and complex environments. They are called High Reliability Organisations (HROs). One of the five characteristics that helps them to achieve this feat is called chronic unease, or a preoccupation with failure.
How long has it been since a major accident or failure in your business? Long periods of success can result in us taking our eye off the ball – we might even start celebrating our success. What we know about major accidents is that when organisations are in this mindset, they are often drifting towards failure. Accidents don’t just happen when things are going badly; they often happen when things appear to be going well.
A common misconception is that chronic unease is just about combatting complacency at the frontline. But exhibiting chronic unease isn’t the responsibility of one group. And in practice, chronic unease is only able to flourish in organisations in the long run when environmental factors are structured to support its presence.