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Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for July 2014

Scapegoats and systems: contrasting approaches to managing human error in organisations

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Much can be learnt about an organization by observing what management does when things go wrong.  One reaction is to hunt for a scapegoat, someone who can be held responsible for the mess.  The other is to take a systemic view that focuses on finding the root cause of the issue and figuring out what can be done in order to prevent it from recurring.  In a highly cited paper published in 2000, James Reason compared and contrasted the two approaches to error management in organisations. This post is an extensive summary of the paper.

The author gets to the point in the very first paragraph:

The human error problem can be viewed in two ways: the person approach and the system approach. Each has its model of error causation and each model gives rise to quite different philosophies of error management. Understanding these differences has important practical implications for coping with the ever present risk of mishaps in clinical practice.

Reason’s paper was published in the British Medical Journal and hence his focus on the practice of medicine. His arguments and conclusions, however, have a much wider relevance as evidenced by the diverse areas in which his paper has been cited.

The person approach – which, I think is more accurately called the scapegoat approach – is based on the belief that any errors can and should be traced back to an individual or a group, and that the party responsible should then be held to account for the error. This is the approach taken in organisations that are colloquially referred to as having a “blame culture.”

To an extent, looking around for a scapegoat is a natural emotional reaction to an error. The oft unstated reason behind scapegoating, however, is to avoid management responsibility.  As the author tells us:

People are viewed as free agents capable of choosing between safe and unsafe modes of behaviour.  If something goes wrong, it seems obvious that an individual (or group of individuals) must have been responsible. Seeking as far as possible to uncouple a person’s unsafe acts from any institutional responsibility is clearly in the interests of managers. It is also legally more convenient

However, the scapegoat approach has a couple of serious problems that hinder effective risk management.

Firstly, an organization depends on its frontline staff to report any problems or lapses. Clearly, staff will do so only if they feel that it is safe to do so – something that is simply not possible in an organization that takes scapegoat approach. The author suggests that the Chernobyl disaster can be attributed to the lack of a “reporting culture” within the erstwhile Soviet Union.

Secondly, and perhaps more important, is that the focus on a scapegoat leaves the underlying cause of the error unaddressed. As the author puts it, “by focusing on the individual origins of error it [the scapegoat approach] isolates unsafe acts from their system context.” As a consequence, the scapegoat approach overlooks systemic features of errors – for example, the empirical fact that the same kinds of errors tend to recur within a given system.

The system approach accepts that human errors will happen. However, in contrast to the scapegoat approach, it views these errors as being triggered by factors that are built into the system. So, when something goes wrong, the system approach focuses on the procedures that were used rather than the people who were executing them. This difference from the scapegoat approach makes a world of difference.

The system approach looks for generic reasons why errors or accidents occur. Organisations usually have a series of measures in place to prevent errors – e.g. alarms, procedures, checklists, trained staff etc. Each of these measures can be looked upon as a “defensive layer” against error. However, as the author notes, each defensive layer has holes which can let errors “pass through” (more on how the holes arise a bit later).  A good way to visualize this is as a series of slices of Swiss Cheese (see Figure 1).

The important point is that the holes on a given slice are not at a fixed position; they keep opening, closing and even shifting around, depending on the state of the organization.  An error occurs when the ephemeral holes on different layers temporarily line up to “let an error through”.

There are two reasons why holes arise in defensive layers:

  1. Active errors: These are unsafe acts committed by individuals. Active errors could be violations of set procedures or momentary lapses. The scapegoat approach focuses on identifying the active error and the person responsible for it. However, as the author points out, active errors are almost always caused by conditions built into the system, which brings us to…
  2. Latent conditions: These are flaws that are built into the system. The author uses the term resident pathogens to describe these – a nice metaphor that I have explored in a paper review I wrote some years ago. These “pathogens” are usually baked into the system by poor design decisions and flawed procedures on the one hand, and ill-thought-out management decisions on the other. Manifestations of the former include faulty alarms, unrealistic or inconsistent procedures or poorly designed equipment; manifestations of the latter include things such as unrealistic targets, overworked staff and the lack of  funding for appropriate equipment.

The important thing to note is that latent conditions can lie dormant for a long period before they are noticed. Typically a latent condition comes to light only when an error caused by it occurs…and only if the organization does a root cause analysis of the error – something that is simply not done in an organization takes a scapegoat approach.

The author draws a nice analogy that clarifies the link between active errors and latent conditions:

…active failures are like mosquitoes. They can be swatted one by one, but they still keep coming. The best remedies are to create more effective defences and to drain the swamps in which they breed. The swamps, in this case, are the ever present latent conditions.

“Draining the swamp” is not a simple task.  The author draws upon studies of high performance organisations (combat units, nuclear power plants and air traffic control centres) to understand how they minimised active errors by reducing system flaws. He notes that these organisations:

  1. Accept that errors will occur despite standardised procedures, and train their staff to deal with and learn from them.
  2. Practice responses to known error scenarios and try to imagine new ones on a regular basis.
  3. Delegate responsibility and authority, especially in crisis situations.
  4. Do a root cause analysis of any error that occurs and address the underlying problem by changing the system if needed.

In contrast, an organisation that takes a scapegoat approach assumes that standardisation will eliminate errors, ignores the possibility of novel errors occurring, centralises control and, above all, focuses on finding scapegoats instead of fixing the system.

Acknowledgement:

Figure 1 was taken from the Patient Safety Education website of Duke University Hospital.

Further reading:

The Swiss Cheese model was first proposed in 1991. It has since been applied in many areas. Here are a couple of recent applications and extensions of the model to project management:

  1. Stephen Duffield and Jon Whitty use the Swiss Cheese model as a basis for their model of Systemic Lessons Learned and Knowledge Captured (SLLKC model) in projects.
  2. In this post, Paul Culmsee extends the SLLKC model to incorporate aspects relating to teams and collaboration.

Written by K

July 29, 2014 at 8:43 pm

The dilemmas of enterprise IT

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Information technology (IT) is an integral part of any modern day business. Indeed, as Bill Gates once put it, “Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other.” Although this is true, decision makers often display ambivalent, even contradictory attitudes towards enterprise IT.  For example, depending on the context, an executive might view IT as a cost of doing business or as a strategic advantage: the former view is common when budgets are being drawn up whereas the latter may come to the fore when a bold new e-marketing initiative is being discussed.

In this post I discuss some of these dilemmas of IT and show how the opposing viewpoints embodied in them need to be managed rather than resolved.  I illustrate my point by describing one way in which this can be done.

The dilemmas in brief

Many of the dilemmas of IT are consequences of conflicting views of what IT is and/or how it should be managed. I’ll describe some of these in brief below, leaving a discussion of their implications to the next section:

  1. IT as a cost of doing business versus IT as strategic asset: This distinction highlights the ambivalent attitudes that senior executives have towards IT. On the one hand, IT is seen as offering strategic advantages to the organization (for example a custom built application for customer segmentation). On the other, it is seen as an operational necessity (for example, core banking systems in the financial industry).
  2. Centralised IT versus Autonomous IT:  This refers to the debate about whether an organisation’s IT environment should be tightly controlled from head office or whether subsidiaries should be given a degree of autonomy.  This is essentially a debate between top-down versus bottom-up approaches to IT planning.
  3. Planning versus Improvisation: This refers to the tension between the structure offered by a plan and process-driven approach to IT and the necessity to step outside of plans and processes in order to come up with improvised solutions suited to the situation at hand. I have written about this paradox in a post on planning and improvisation.

There are other dilemmas – for example, technology driven IT versus business driven IT. However, for the purpose of this discussion the three listed above will suffice.

The poles of a dilemma

In his book entitled Polarity Management, Barry Johnson described how complex organizational issues can often be analysed in terms of their mutually contradictory facets. He termed these facets poles or polarities.  In this and the next section, I elaborate on Johnson’s notion of polarity and show how it offers a means to understand and manage the dilemmas of enterprise IT.

The key features of poles are as follows:

Each pole has associated positives and negatives. For example, the up side of viewing IT as a cost is that the organisation focuses on IT efficiency and value for money; the downside is that exploration and experimentation that is necessary for IT innovation would likely be seen as risky. On the other hand, the positive side of IT as a strategic asset is that it is seen as a means to enable an organisation’s growth and development; the negative is that it can encourage unproven technologies (since new technologies are more likely to offer competitive advantages) and uncontrolled experimentation along with their attendant costs.

Most organisations oscillate between poles.  At any given time the organisation will be “living” in one pole. In such situations, some stakeholders will perceive the negatives of that pole strongly and will thus see the other pole as being more desirable (the “grass is greener on the other” side syndrome).  Johnson labels such stakeholders crusaders” – those who want to rush off into the new world. On the other hand, there are tradition bearers, those who want to stay put.  When an organisation has spent a fair bit of time in one pole, the influence of crusaders tends wax while that of the tradition bearers weakens because the negatives become apparent to more and more people.

A concrete example may help clarify this point:

Consider a situation where all subsidiaries of a multinational have autonomous IT units (and have had these for a while).  The main benefits of such a model are responsiveness and relevance:  local IT units will able to respond quickly to local needs and will also be able to deliver solutions that are tailored to the specific needs of the local business. However, this model has many negative aspects: for example, high costs, duplication of effort, massive software portfolio and attendant costs, high cost of interfacing between subsidiaries etc.

When the model has been in operation for a while, it is quite likely that IT decision makers will perceive the negatives of this pole more clearly than they see the positives. They will then initiate a reform to centralize IT because they perceive the positives of that pole –i.e. low costs, centralization of services etc. – as being worth striving for.  However, when the new world is in place and has been operating for a while, the organisation will begin to see its downside: bureaucracy, lack of flexibility, applications that don’t meet specific local business needs etc. They will then start to delegate responsibility back to the subsidiaries…and thus goes the polarity merry-go-round.

Managing enterprise IT dilemmas

As discussed above, any option will have its supporters and detractors. For example, finance folks may see IT as a cost of doing business whereas those in IT will consider it to be a strategic asset.   What’s important, however, is that most organisations “resolve” such contradictions by taking sides. That is, one side “wins” and their point of view gets implemented as a “solution.”  The concerns of the “losing” side are overlooked entirely.

Although such a “solution” appears to solve the problem, it does not take long for the negative aspects of the other pole to manifest itself; the rumbles of discontent from those whose concerns have been ignored grow louder with time.  In this sense, issues that can be defined in terms of polarities are wicked problems – they are perceived in different ways by different stakeholders and so are difficult to define, let alone solve.

As we have seen above, however, the poles of a dilemma are but different facets of a single reality.  Hence, the first step towards managing a dilemma lies in realizing that it cannot be resolved definitively; regardless of the path chosen, there will always be a group whose concerns remain unaddressed. The best one can do is to be aware of the positives and negatives of each pole and ensure that the entire spectrum of stakeholders is aware of these. A shared awareness can help the group in figuring out ways to mitigate the worst effects of the negatives.

One which this can be done is via a facilitated session, involving people who represent the two sides of the issue.   To begin with, the facilitator helps the group identify the poles. She then helps the group create a polarity map which shows the contradictory aspects of the issue along with their positives and negatives. A rudimentary polarity map for the autonomous/centralized IT dilemma is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

Figure 1: Polarity map for centralised / autonomous IT dilemma

To ensure completeness of the map, the group must include stakeholders who represent both sides of the dilemma (and also those who hold views that lie between).

As mentioned in the previous section, organisations are not static, they oscillate between poles. Moreover, Johnson claimed that they follow a specific path in the map.  Quoting from the book I wrote with Paul Culmsee:

According to Johnson, organisations tended to oscillate between poles. If you accept the notion of a wicked problem as a polarity, the overall pattern traced as one moves between these poles resembles an infinity symbol. The typical path is L- to R+, to R-, across to L+ and Johnson argued that the trajectory could not be avoided. All we can do is focus on minimizing our time spent in the lower quadrants.

Again, it is worth emphasizing that the conflict between the two groups of stakeholders cannot be resolved definitively. The best one can do is to get the two sides to understand each other’s’ point of view and hence attempt to minimize the downsides of each option.

Finally, polarity management is but one way to manage the dilemmas associate with enterprise IT or any other organizational decision. There are many others – and <advertisement> I highly recommend my book if you’re interested in finding out more about these </advertisement>.  In the end, though, the point I wished to make in this post is less about any particular technique and more about the need to air and acknowledge differing perspectives on issues pertaining to enterprise IT or any other decision with organization-wide implications.

Wrapping up

The dilemmas of enterprise IT are essentially consequences of mutually contradictory, yet equally valid perspectives. Is IT a cost of doing business or is it a strategic asset? The answer depends on the perspective one takes…and there is no objectively right or wrong answer.  Given this, it is important to be aware of both the up and down side of each perspective (or pole) before one makes a decision.  Unfortunately, most often decisions are made on the basis of the up side of one option and the down side of the other.  As should be evident now, a decision that is based on such a selective consideration of viewpoints invariably invites conflict and leads to undesirable outcomes.

Written by K

July 2, 2014 at 9:52 pm

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