TEAM TALK: Failure is the mother of success

Last year, a substantial amount of my work time was spent migrating our health and safety management system from the British Standard of OH SAS 18001 to the new international standard ISO 45001.  Of which, I’m pleased to say, HB Projects achieved certification in October 2019.

The new standard takes a more holistic approach to the management of health and safety, demanding that it is an integral part of how we do business, with health and safety objectives closely aligned to the strategic direction of the organisation.

Another change is the emphasis on worker involvement and consultation – after all, the people at the ‘sharp end’ know better than anyone the skills needed to meet the challenges of their roles.

This emphasis closely aligns with philosophies gaining traction in world of health and safety.  Human Operational Performance (HOP); ‘New View’; ‘Safety II’ and ‘Safety Differently’ challenge the traditional view of safety which can often be seen as metrics and compliance based.  These ‘old views’ focus towards behaviours of individual workers, rather than examining the systems we use to identify where weak or brittle processes make errors more likely or the consequences higher.

Underpinning the HOP way of thinking is the assertion that error is normal.  Even the best people make mistakes – it’s a part of being a human- and simply blaming the person for making a mistake does nothing to fix underlying issues.  There is a big difference between blame and accountability and Leaders need to develop the ability to consider the context around how the event happened and how we can use the event to improve; rather jumping straight to blame.

An ancient Chinese proverb says ‘failure is the mother of success’.  Every failure is a chance to learn and grow; to gain insights from what doesn’t go right and carry this knowledge forward to build future successes.  To enable this learning and improving needs workers at every level to feel able to discuss where things went wrong as openly as where things went right.

Workers encounter variability every day.  Construction is a work environment which never stands still and challenges such as programme changes, late deliveries, client variations or sub-contractors not being available as planned are common events during the life of a project.  The good news is that as humans, although error prone, are experts at adaptation; overcoming challenges to make things work and get the job done.

Most of the time this adaptation works, and a successful outcome is gained.  Sometimes the workers are the hero of the day – thinking outside the box and finding a way of resolving a situation which could have resulted in a high consequence incident, be it from a safety, programming or budget perspective.  If it all goes wrong though, these same people are lambasted for not following procedure, not trying hard enough or having a bad attitude.

In an article written for the Crisis Response website, HOP Practitioner Teresa Swinton writes “Simply ordering workers to follow the rules, to adhere to procedures or to be more vigilant, is not the solution…addressing organisational drift, requires a shift in thinking.  Improvements cannot be implemented on the premise that the major cause of unwanted outcomes is employees not following the rules or having a bad attitude, because that is not the case.  Success is not the absence of unwanted outcomes, it is the presence of resilience in the system that enables us to bounce back from adversity, (having) accuracy in the documentation that describes the context of the task, as well as the methodology of completing it, and in the ability and empowerment of workers to make crucial operational decisions at the right time. Why? Because employees are making up the gap to excellence where systems and defences are flawed and this is exactly the behaviour we need.”

Leaders at all levels of the organisation can have a huge influence on the ability of the organisation to use both success and failure to learn and grow by how they respond to events.  This attitude meshes tightly with our company values of Quality, Honesty, Innovation and Teamwork and helps us to keep moving forward.

Lynda Parkinson, Health & Safety Lead