This article was first published in the February 2017 issue of Safety+Health magazine.
Sometimes a single decision can make the difference between going home safe and not. We’re good at identifying a single poor decision (for example, failure to alert the next shift of an offline pump or missing a specific step in a complicated procedure), but few understand what it takes to make a safe decision. Advances in human factors, technology and neuroscience are changing that. The challenge is understanding what safe decision making looks like and how to develop and deploy it systematically.
By some estimates, the average adult makes upwards of 35,000 decisions a day. Many of these decisions are relatively low-risk, even trivial — from what to eat for breakfast to how to respond to a social request. But the potential outcomes of some decisions can have serious, even life-altering, effects. Consider the stakes of:
Humans tend to choose the best they know how. But as author Jim Collins once noted, bad decisions made with good intentions are still bad decisions. It’s up to leaders to equip workers with the knowledge, skills, tools and environment to consistently make the choice that reduces exposure to themselves and others.
Rules of Engagement
While the idea of systematically improving individual (and team) decision making is still evolving, our experience suggests that leaders proceed with four principles in mind:
Improving the quality of decision-making is necessarily a team effort. A single worker with the right knowledge and approach can start making safer decisions, however to dramatically increase the level of safe decision making, it requires support from our leaders and peers. Organizations that want to increase the amount of safe decisions need to to understanding all the influences on decision making, be open to the fact that their individual actions, organizational culture and systems may be barriers to safe decision making. Finally, there needs to be active learning and practicing of new techniques that lead to safer decisions.