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  • Writer's pictureMark Myers

How Did We Get Here?

Updated: Feb 20

The Emergence of our Current SMS

If you arrived in a safety management role with a business management background, you likely experienced or studied multiple, scientific, MBA management concepts to make working sense of your company’s operating context and strategies.

If you wanted to fix a business problem, you broke down workflows, analyzed and streamlined them. You then celebrated success by buying everyone a coffee mug and a tee-shirt, and then put them back together.

Next, we attempted to control human behavior by bolting on multiple quality management theories and deploying change management tools that tried to keep organizational performance in line with the influence of huge advances in information and product technology. In this era, many industries were influenced from the two-edged sword of business disruption and technological breakthroughs, some benefited, many failed. Meanwhile, hundreds of business management books, papers, and theories on how to survive packed our bookshelves.

During the same time, organizational health and safety managers were evolving under similar business influences. While MBAs were busy process mapping the universe and hosting management retreat weekends to write yet another company slogan and new vision statement, safety managers were challenged with the resulting redesigned workflows and systems waves, technical waves, and waves of increasing awareness of work and social cultures, which directly influenced employee safety. Their takeaway, from company retreats, was how to understand the growing limitations of controlling behavior under current OHS management systems design, regulatory requirements, linear failure analysis constraints, and top-down-designed rules and policy.

By the mid-2000s, the ‘tail had begun wagging the dog’ as both the MBAs and OSH managers started changing their perspectives on how to control human performance within the context of rapidly expanding technologies, expanding global pressures, and growing business uncertainty. Both had realized that production versus protection, stability versus change, and people versus systems, had more divergent problems than learned convergent solutions that were collecting dust on their bookshelves. There was no one solution to getting the right work done, and getting work done safely.

As work performed versus work designed processes diverged, the best remedy and best solutions continued to come from front-line workers – should management pause to watch and listen.

Coined as the “adaptive age,” successful companies’ leadership became more comfortable in treating human variability as a strategic asset with a growing knowledge base, instead of treating it as a corporate liability needing stronger controls. The adaptive age combines and embraces an adaptive work culture and resilience engineering in the same operating context. This organizational performance concept has spawned new studies and development of socio-technical theory and socio-technical systems (STS). STS are based upon core concepts that the design and performance of an organizational system can only be understood and subsequently improved when ‘social’ and ‘technical’ aspects are brought together and treated as interdependent parts of a complex system.

We return to the MBA and the OSH manager joining a virtual corporate retreat together meeting under an STS initiative. Their goal is continually building joint optimization in achieving excellence in technical performance, while simultaneously improving the quality and safety of people’s work lives. So, I will leave you in this happy ‘Kumbaya moment’ with organizational behaviorists putting a neat STS label the current degrees of operating complexity and the MBA and OSH Manager collaborating in a Zoom call. In future blogs, we’ll begin to appreciate the increasingly hard work necessary to design safety processes, in a social-technical organization context. How can/should processes vary continuously in response to (and anticipation of) changes in operating conditions? Or, in resilience engineering terms, what can a company build to respond, to monitor, to anticipate, and to learn?

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