Frequently I am asked about the qualifications of a safety professional, what makes a good leader and what it takes to work safely. My answer to each question is the same – you must get really good at asking and understanding “why.” At a minimum, you must ask and understand why rules, procedures and work methods are in place; why performance, behavior and results are occurring; and why past events, incidents and errors happened.
If you become really good at asking and understanding “why” in those areas, you will be able to employ human performance (HP) principle five, which states that events can be avoided through an understanding of the reasons why mistakes occur and application of lessons learned from past events or errors. This principle reminds me of an adage most of us have heard before: Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. It also reminds me of a definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I like to summarize HP principle five by saying simply, “‘Why’ works.”
Not long ago, my son was trying to park a golf cart in the cart shed. He got upset because he was in a repeated cycle of turning too early, almost hitting the shed, backing up and trying again. I let him go through that cycle of repeating the same mistake a few times and then calmly said, “Try again, but do something different this time.” He tried again and still turned too early but improved. The next time he turned too late. After a few more tries, he finally got the cart in the shed without hitting anything.
He got the cart in the shed because, without knowing it, he used HP principle five. He shifted from expecting a different outcome with the same behavior to understanding why the situation was occurring and trying something different until he achieved his desired outcome. Now, he applies the lessons he learned and usually parks the cart successfully on his first try.