Strategic Safety Planning: A Systems View

Article excerpt

Strategic Safety Planning: A Systems View

In my book "Systems Methods for Managers," I urge caution in the use of systems methods and techniques. It is easy to fall into the trap of regarding systems approaches as a kind of philosopher's stone or a magic wand to wave at difficult problems or complex situations. A corollary is that any method or approach to such matters is limited. Each may be limited in different ways and some may be more holistic and robust to different contexts than others, but the expectations that one particular approach is inherently better than the rest may bring disappointment.

In a FOCUS article last year, "Strategically Planning the Safety Function," (November 1989), Dr. Anthony Veltri argued that strategic planning was an essential requirement of modern safety management and essential to the task of improving health and safety performance. I agree whole-heartedly. However, Dr. Veltri's article proceeded to suggest or imply a number of questionable assertions, including:

* Application of strategic safety planning alone will bring success; for example, "Only with a carefully articulated and adhered to strategic intent will a succession of year-to-year strategic safety plans sum up to building distinctive functional and organizational capabilities and become recognized as world class."

* Return on safety investment is an appropriate measure and can be applied accurately and reliably; for example, "A reliable index recognized by senior level executives is return on invested budget from the safety function."

In the remainder of this article, I intend to examine these propositions from a systems viewpoint.

Assumptions

Formal planning approaches or "models" are invaluable in any kind of management, and why should safety management be any different? At a strategic level where higher-order goals and longer time horizons are involved, there can be little doubt that organizations which do this are likely to fare better than those which do not. Formal planning helps prevent a lot of muddle, helps clarify direction, and acts as a reminder of where things are headed and what needs to be done. Monitoring of performance using suitable measures acts as a focus on how well implementation is doing.

If one accepts that clear thinking and planning are good things to do, are they sufficient to ensure that goals are reached and success achieved? If they are not, then why not? And, what else is needed? What are suitable measures of performance in the context of health and safety?

A central difficulty with strategic planning and related techniques is that they are rationalistic tools based on rationalistic assumptions about how humans as individuals, in groups and as organizations, behave. In the jargon of organizational psychology, strategic planning is consistent with a structural, or functionalist, world-view. World-view is a complex set of values, attitudes, assumptions, and motivations which characterize an individual or set of individuals. It is a perceptual bias which is often influenced by membership in professional or other groups. For example, the world-view of nuclear scientists is likely to be vastly different than that of advertising executives.

Proponents of strategic planning and of other rationalistic, logical methods perceive things as having a preordained structure and function. For example, the structures of business and industry and how they operate may be taken for granted. Any "problems" they experience exist to be "solved" and this can be done by closing the gap between the "problem" and "solution," or between the present position and the desired state. Quantifiable measures of performance are taken as self-evidently necessary means to measure achievement. In systems terms, this kind of world-view is one that has well-structured components and definable, quantifiable attributes which lend themselves to prediction and control. …