THE 7 DELUSIONS OF DISASTER-PRONE ORGANIZATIONS

World Mining Congress

Corrie Pitzer,

BA Hons Psych; B Hons Business; Grad Dip. Ed; MBA

Chief Executive Officer

SAFEmap International

Vancouver, British Columbia

(corrie.pitzer@safemap.com)

Safety performance in many companies and even industries has stalled in the last decade. Accidents rates are improving but more slowly and yet, serious accidents and fatality rates are not: in fact, these rates of more serious incidents have plateaued or deteriorating.

In more dramatic cases, organizations that had “exemplary” safety statistics, suddenly had a catastrophic or multi-fatality event occurring.

Popular books such as In Search of Excellence of Peters and Waterman or Good to Great of Jim Collins created many delusional “secrets” or recipes, to achieve great performance and yet, most of those ‘great’ or ‘excellent’ companies have now declined in their performance, some dramatically and some have fallen from grace, like Fanny Mae, a company Jim Collins identified as a “great” one, that had to be bailed out in the latest financial crisis.

These organizations share several “delusions” about managing a business, and often, these delusions are created by academics, consultants and authors of popular books about (safety) management. More damaging however is that safety management is defined by a set of key practices or axioms: a focus on human error, compliance to rules and regulations, creating consistency of systems and actions, reacting to accidents and incidents and on prevention of those, measuring safety with performance metrics and rewarding employees on those measurements.

All of these axioms contain the seeds of destruction, and they create conditions and dynamics that precede the disaster - and ironically, they are all 'good things' we do in safety management. For example, a mere focus on safety in the business, and the measurement of it, create a culture of repression of mistakes and incidents, leading to a situation where the organization knows incrementally less and less of risks and risktaking behaviour - until the day it all coincides destructively!

This paper discusses seven such safety delusions and how they impact on the views and safety management approaches. They are:

• The delusion of (risk) control, that risks can actually be identified, analyzed and mitigated.
• The delusion of compliance, that mere compliance to rules will safeguard the business
• The delusion of consistency, that standard operating procedures will ensure safe operations
• The delusion of predictability, that accidents and trends tell us everything about the risks of the future
• The delusion of human error, that people are the weakest link and that it can actually be dealt with through discipline and enforcement.
• The delusion of statistical trends, that safety is measurable with statistics
• The delusion of invulnerability, that we have achieved high levels integrity and capability to deal with risks.

Organizations that suffered catastrophes all share some or all of these delusions and this paper traces how these played a role in many disasters, ranging from the Titanic, Challenger, Piper Alpha, Bhopal, BP Deepwater Horizon and many more.
Keywords: Safety; Risk; Risks; Accidents; Systems; Performance; Mine; Mines; Control;
Full Access to Technical Paper
PDF version for $20.00
Other papers from World Mining Congress