Variance is your friend

Quality and safety manager: Variance is your friend

Caution: If you have been working with quality or safety for years, the following message might be disturbing and possible rock your robust worldview.

Research Concept

There were a captain on a ship carrying explosives; a heavy storm was coming, and being close to land, the safety instructions prescribed getting the ship to harbor as soon as possible. Now they could see smoke in the horizon and they were told over the radio, that there was a big fire on the harbor. The safety instruction didn’t foresee this specific combination of events, so the captain had to use common sense and not follow the safety instruction, and thereby prevent the situation becoming a tragedy.

Normally you might perceive variance as the enemy or even dangerous. But I have to break it to you, just as often, human variance is what improves quality and prevents the disaster. The ability to cope with the unanticipated is an indispensable human trait.

You might have your own examples about how humans have invented new things, improved the existing or prevented harm, by acting in new ways to the unanticipated. Just as you probably have stories about when human factors were the cause of a disaster.

Automation and procedures can only be programmed to cope with what we can imagine and anticipate. Author of several books on resilience engineering, Professor Erik Hollnagel puts it like this: “The difference between what we can imagine and what can happen is greater than we can imagine”. Humans are more sophisticated than machines, and are capable of coping with the unanticipated.

I’m not saying we should not have procedures, standard work or normal quality control. What I am saying is that we should learn at least as much from the 99% of the times, when things go right, and ask ourselves – why did it go right. How can we make it go right more times – and learn to leverage human variance, rather than eliminating it? So the basic idea is: We spend at least 90% of our safety and quality resources on preventing things from going wrong and investigating when they do. Yet we have much more data on when things go right, we simple just don’t collect and use it.

I’m not advocating for happy go lucky. We are misled to believe that when things go right, it’s because things happen as imagined or as planned. But I’m saying: It’s wrong. We live in a complex world where we can’t always find the coalition between cause and effect.

I’m advocating for resilience rather than robustness – the ability to early detect and recover fast. Yet the concept of resilience is a hard sell. If you have succeeded in building resilience, it’s hard to prove, that if you hadn’t done so, things would have gone wrong or even worse. The focus needs to change to getting as much as possible to go right.

We have developed a research and behavioral change concept that offers deep insights and thorough data to build resilience and get more things to go right. We are collecting stories about human factors and use the data as basis for better decisions and to model behavior to higher performance and safer work, through a cultural change process – that will blow your mind.

If you want to hear more about our concept – please contact me.


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