Curiosity Saves Lives

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“Safety is Priority One.”

“Nothing we do is worth taking a risk.”

“Safety is our business.”

“Our goal is a zero accident workplace.”

These are real words on real safety posters in real companies. But are they genuine?

Lip service (especially hyperbolic or idealistic lip service), if different than actual behavior (especially behavior reinforced by cultural norms), does more harm than good because it sends a mixed message. 

If an organization has a culture that implicitly or explicitly rewards short-term productivity, what happens to safety numbers? Up or down? And why is that?

The tempting conclusion is that safety is in tension with productivity. There is a fundamental trade-off between these two measures of success. Right?

Well, not quite.

Let’s talk about HROs. If you already know that is an acronym for high-reliability organizations and are tired of hearing about how great HROs are in the same way you’re tired of hearing about how great it is to be attractive, wealthy, and physically fit, hang on a minute. 

Before you roll your eyes and stop reading, consider this: We will not write about how great it is to be an HRO; we will write about what it takes to get there.

HROs are commonly discussed but widely misunderstood. Bottom line, though, is they achieve high performance and astonishingly low accident rates in the face of very high risk. One iconic example is aircraft carrier flight operations.

Why do we claim HROs are misunderstood? First, the name itself: high reliability is a neutral attribute. Sure, it’s possible to have reliably high performance and safety, but it’s also possible—and common—to have reliably poor performance or safety (or both). So when someone says “HRO,” they imply that reliability is the goal. But it should only be a modifying descriptor for the real goal.

Second, HROs absolutely do not treat safety as Priority One. If naval aviators thought safety were Priority One, we wouldn’t land jittery, high-performance jets on boats in the middle of the night. The operational decision to say “no” to night carrier landings would be easy were we in receipt of a sincere directive identifying safety as Priority One. 

In fact, if you walked into what we call a ready room—a room on an aircraft carrier full of about 30 flight-suited aviators ready to fly—one of them would have the designation of safety officer. That person would be responsible for tracking, documenting, organizational learning, and training as it pertains to safety. But he or she is aircrew first. Trust us, nobody in that room got there by thinking “safety first.” Somehow, though, they are all there and chances are, they will all make it home in a few months.

These are people relentlessly focused on long-term success. Weick and Sutcliffe write that HROs have, among a total of five key qualities, a “preoccupation with failure.” As HRO practitioners, we’d prefer to say that we have a preoccupation with long-term success.

It’s the “long-term” part of that assertion that provides a first step toward better understanding.

If you choose to engage in a dangerous profession (naval air or oil and gas), and you plan to be good at it, then you better find a way to string together a lot of successes. Among other things like competency assurance and continuous improvement, it means you better be safe—live to “fight” another day, every day. So unlike a preoccupation with failure, a preoccupation with long-term success suggests safety is simply a practical necessity.

What about short-term success, then? “Get ‘er done!” That is at odds with safety. And therefore it’s at odds with long-term success.

So the safety vs. productivity trade-off—often experienced as lip service to safety vs. short-term production pressure—is a false dichotomy. There is no need to find the right balance here. “Balance” implies a little bit of one can and should be sacrificed for a little bit of the other. When the question is “How do we best balance safety with short-term production?”, the answer is hard because the question is wrong.

The true dichotomy is long-term productivity vs. short-term productivity. Safety is already baked in to achieving long-term success. 

What metrics do you manage? What cultural realities influence your workers? Do they encourage short-term thinking or long-term thinking? (Here’s a hint: this fiscal year is not a long term. The next 3 years might not be, either.) Are they aligned with the culture you have? What about the culture you want?

As most of you well know, safety is a matter of culture. So if you want to build a culture of safety, build a culture of long-term high performance.

Great, you say, how do we do that?

A lot has been written about the characteristics of HROs, but very little about how to become one. Its not always clear how to get from here to there.

At Vetergy Group, we have found our way to four key cultural behaviors—guiding beliefs—that are prescriptive in nature. These are things you can do as an organization. The tactical specifics vary, of course, from organization to organization. We spend a lot of time determining those specifics and walking the journey of change alongside our clients.

We do realize that reading four bullet points won’t change your organization to an HRO. It does take a bit more work than that. But we hope these ideas spark some deep thought about how you might apply the following four behaviors in your own work, or even elsewhere in your lives.

  • To the degree possible, set rules as boundaries. In other words, whenever possible, make broad rules about what not to do rather than overly prescriptive rules about what must be done. Then reward results, not rule following. Leave room for affordable mistakes. Follow them up with purposeful learning. People need room for ingenuity and creativity. The business reason for this is employee engagement.

  • Encourage curiosity. It goes hand-in-hand with the bullet above. Humans are built to learn, invent, and solve problems. Ask questions. Listen to the questions of others. Quashing that prime directive with prescriptive rules or even simply by not listening is shortsighted. It cannot succeed in the long term. 

  • Speaking of which, focus long-term. Metrics, formal and informal communications, management priorities, and leadership behavior should all send the message that your organization’s unifying purpose (and it should have one) is a marathon, not a sprint. You plan to win the marathon, and you run it differently than a sprint.

  • Prioritize team success over individual success. Reward teams; let the individual’s reward be the emotional high of participation on a winning team. Sometimes such a team will make a point of rewarding one of their individuals. That’s for them to decide.

In a nutshell, these guiding principles are an organization’s way of acknowledging both sides of the human condition—the inevitability of error and the magic of ingenuity. These are the realities that we can’t engineer away, no matter how good our equipment or how well-documented our procedures. 

The big idea is to harness what’s universally, unchangeably true about all of us, and use it to excel safely.


Burl Amsbury is focused on ensuring the quality of Vetergy’s clients’ experiences and their ultimate success. He has served in the US Navy as a carrier-based attack pilot, mission commander, and maintenance quality assurance officer. In the private sector, he has been an executive, entrepreneur, and consultant for venture-backed high-growth companies in various industries. The common theme in his work has been an interest in complexity and high risk. He has served in product development, operations, marketing, and sales. Amsbury studied control system design at MIT, earning a BS and a MS. Post-Navy, he returned to MIT’s Sloan School of Management and completed an MS specializing in the design and management of complex systems. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his partner and her two young children, where he also acts as business manager for an innovative grass-fed cattle company. He may be reached at burl.amsbury@vetergy.com.


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