I’ve always been fascinated by the world of safety. How do you run an airline, a factory, or a hospital safely? How do you avoid creating a safety-light culture, where too many mistakes happen, while also avoiding creating one that’s so strangled by process and bureaucracy that it can’t actually get anything done?
These are questions that have occupied intelligent people for a long time, but I think that the answers to them are of broader relevance. In any organisation, understanding why mistakes happen and avoiding them is something worth putting effort into; in any organisation, it’s possible to create unproductive cultures of blame and to strange people with process. So what can we learn from the safety thinkers? I think we could start by getting rid of the phrase “human error” from our vocabulary – as Sidney Dekker’s fantastic book The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’ explains.
The first response to accidents, outages, and mistakes is to blame “human error”. If we think that chalking things up to human error explains things, argues Sidney Dekker’s book The Field Guide to Understanding ‘Human Error’, then we’ve got a lot of learning to do.
A lovely extract from the memoirs of Alan Cumming that’s a paean in its first half to Stanley Kubrick, and in its second to the Spice Girls:
“So, that summer running around London, laughing, and frolicking with five girls who were at the very zenith of their pop princess potency, being taught the dance moves of the Spice Girls’ songs by the Spice Girls themselves, was golden for me. I felt at home, I felt happy, I was carefree. Every day was an adventure, and anything seemed possible, and that’s how I want all my life to be.”
Emma Pattee introduces a brilliantly simple but powerful metaphor for thinking about your individual impact on climate change: your “climate shadow”. More useful than just thinking about your climate footprint, your climate shadow takes into account the secondary impacts of what you do, who you vote for and what you lobby for, and forces us to consider ways of making a far bigger impact than just by changing our own individual behaviours:
“The problem with the carbon footprint is that… our footprints don’t paint an accurate picture of our true individual impact on the climate crisis. And by encouraging eco-minded people to use their carbon footprints as a ‘guide’ to fight climate change, we risk them spending all of their energy on low-impact individual actions that are easy to quantify, like recycling or turning off lights, instead of putting that energy toward broader, more meaningful work, like lobbying local politicians or speaking up at work about wasteful practices.”
The always-fantastic Tim Harford on Britain’s recent spate of shortages, the global supply chain crisis, and all the other things that just aren’t meant to happen in our integrated, globalised, market economy:
“The complex world of obscure supply chains is a wonderful curiosity when explained by Leonard E. Read’s pencil. It is less wonderful when the shelves are empty and billions remain unvaccinated. ‘Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand,’ declaims the pencil. Should we?”