Are Safety and Production Compatible?


Can we all agree that people tend to make fewer mistakes when they slow down and, conversely, make more mistakes when they speed up?  And people tend to increase their speed when they feel pressure to produce?  Personal experience and research both support these two contentions.  Deadlines and pressure to produce literally change the way we see the world.  Things that might otherwise be perceived as risks are either not noticed at all or are perceived as insignificant compared to the importance of getting things done. Pressure and Perception

A famous research study by Darley & Batson (1973), sometimes referred to as “The Good Samaritan Study”, demonstrated the impact of production pressure on people’s willingness to help someone in need:

Participants were seminary students who were given the task of preparing a speech on the parable of the Good Samaritan — a story in which a man from Samaria voluntarily helps a stranger who was attacked by robbers.  The participants were divided into different groups, some of which were rushed to complete this task.  They were then sent from one building to another, where, along the way, they encountered a shabbily dressed “confederate” slumped over and appearing to need help.  The researchers found that participants in the hurry condition (production pressure) were much more likely to pass by the person in need, and many even reported either not seeing the person or not recognizing that the person needed help.

Even people’s deeply held moral convictions can be trumped by production pressure, not because it has eroded those convictions, but because it makes people see the world differently.

The Trade Off

One reason for this is that many of our decisions are impacted by what is known as the Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-off (ETTO) (Hollnagel, 2004, 2009).  It is often impossible to be both fast and completely accurate at the same time because of our limited cognitive abilities, so we have to give in to one or the other.

When we give in to speed (efficiency) we tend to respond automatically rather than thoughtfully. We engage what Daniel Kahneman (see Hardwired to Jump to Conclusions) refers to as “System 1” processing — we utilize over-learned, quickly retrieved heuristics that have worked for us in the past, even though those approaches cause us to overlook risks and other important subtleties in the current situation.  This is how we naturally deal with the ETTO while under pressure from peers, supervisors or organizational systems to increase efficiency.

Conversely, when we are not under pressure to increase efficiency, but, rather, pressure to be completely accurate (thorough), we have a greater tendency to engage what Kahneman calls “System 2” processing — we are more thorough in how we manage our efforts and account for the factors that could impact the quality of what we are producing.  In these instances, we will notice risks, opportunities and other subtleties in our environments, just as the “non-rushed” participants did in the “Good Samaritan Study.”

So what is the point?

Most of our organizations are geared to make money, so efficiency is very important; but how do we bolster the thoroughness side of the tradeoff to support safety and minimize undesired events?  To answer this, we have to take an honest look at the context in which employees work.  Which is more significant to employees, efficiency or thoroughness?  And what impact is it having on decision making?

Some industries (e.g. manufacturing) have opted to streamline and automate their processes so that this balance is handled by interfacing humans more effectively with the machines.  Some industries can’t do this as well because of the nature of their work (e.g., construction).  We worked with a client in this later category that had a robust safety program, experienced employees and well intentioned leaders, but which was about to go out of business because of poor safety performance…and it had everything to do with the Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-off.  The contracts that they operated under made it nearly impossible to turn a profit unless they completed projects ahead of schedule.  As they became more efficient to meet these deadlines, the time-to-completion got shorter and shorter in each subsequent contract until “thoroughness” had been edged out almost entirely.  For this company, preaching “safety” and telling people to take their time was simply not enough to outweigh the ever-increasing, systemic pressure to improve efficiency.  The only way to fix the problem and balance the ETTO was to fix the way that contracts were written, which was much more challenging than the quick and illusory solutions that they had originally tried.

Every organization is different, so balancing the ETTO will require different solutions and an understanding of the cultural factors driving decision making at all levels of the organization.  Once you understand what is salient to people in the organization, you can identify changes that will decrease the negative impact of pressure on performance.