Safety and the Learning Organization


Hello and welcome, friend! In this article, we're going to give you an introduction to how safety departments, safety managers, and/or safety professionals can contribute to the creation of a learning organization at work.

In doing so, we'll introduce you to or touch on learning organization theory, new safety/safety differently/safety 2/human and organization performance (HOP), risk management, systems thinking and safety management systems, lean manufacturing, and more.

Let's get started soon. But before we do, download the guide below to the "new view" of safety, including HOP, HPI, Safety Differently, Safety-II, and Resilience Engineering. Much of what we'll talk about in this article is also discussed in the 100+ page guide featuring contributions from many leading global safety professionals.

What Is a Learning Organization?

Let's start by giving a quick introduction to learning organizations.

In short, a learning organization is an organization that's dedicated itself to learning, creativity, and innovation.

Peter Senge was one of the first people to write extensively about learning organizations. Here's how he defines a learning organization:

…organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.

Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline

Learning organizations are said to have a learning culture and to possess learning agility. Watch for additional articles on all of these topics, but this should do for starters.

Why An Organization Would Want to Be a Learning Organization

To one degree or another, there have always been companies that have placed a value on learning. And in many cases, that learning helped them succeed where their competitors failed.

But being a learning organization is even more important in today's world than it was in the past. That's true for at least three reasons:

  • The increasingly globalized economy and the resulting increased business competition
  • The advanced rate of technological changes that make it easier and easier for an industry to be "disrupted" and for once-powerful companies with proven business models to become outdated
  • The need for people to develop appropriate job skills in an increasingly automated, technology-based workplace

Again, we'll write about all this in more detail in other articles, but just take a moment to think of brick-and-motor Blockbuster stores (disrupted by Netflix), hotels (being disrupted by Airbnb), and taxis (being disrupted by Uber and Lyft) and you can see the general point.

Why Safety Departments/Managers/Professionals Should Want to Contribute to Their Learning Organization

So, you may be thinking, "This is all fine and well, but what does it have to do with safety?"

But we invite you to think instead, "How can safety contribute to a learning organization (or even take a lead in creating one)?"

Why? Well, first of all, if it's good for the company, everyone should want to participate.

Second of all, if this is going to help you company survive and thrive, and if you play a role, you stand to get recognized for that.

And also because there are some specific ways that make it easy for safety to play a role. We're going to cover some of them below.

But mostly, because it will help counter a lot of the negative stereotypes about safety. You know the ones--the stereotypes that say the following about safety:

  • Safety is a necessary cost of doing business
  • Safety is a drag on production and revenue
  • Safety is an obstacle
  • Safety professionals are just safety cops
  • Safety doesn't contribute positively to the organization
  • Safety's primary role is simply to ensure compliance

If any of the above claims about safety sound familiar, maybe you'd like to turn the tables and change the perspectives a bit.

Learning Organizations and New Safety/Safety 2/Safety Differently/Human and Organizational Performance (HOP)

Before we jump into listing some ways for your safety department to contribute to a learning organization, let's note some of our key sources.

Learning organization theory is often thought to have started with Peter Senge and his book The Fifth Discipline. In that book, he says that learning organizations cultivate the following disciplines:

A more recent account of learning organization can be found in a Harvard Business Review article by Garvin, Edmonson, and Gino titled Is Yours a Learning Organization? In this article, the authors identify three main characteristics of a learning organization (and also go on to list additional sub-characteristics as well):

  1. Supportive learning environment, including psychological safety
  2. Concrete learning practices and processes
  3. Leadership that encourages and reinforces learning

This article also draws a lot from newer thoughts in safety that are known by different names but have a lot in common. These new view of safety are often known as:

Some key thinkers in this "new safety" arena include:

For more on these newer fields in safety, see the following articles:

Ways for Safety to Contribute to a Learning Organization

Now let's start listing some ways to begin doing this at work as early as--now. Or today or tomorrow. Admittedly, some may take more time, but others are easy enough to get started on immediately.

Change Your Definition of Safety

Traditionally, safety professionals define safety as something like:

  • The absence of harm
  • The absence of incidents

This seems logical at first glance, but if you consider it a little more deeply, it's strange. We don't define safety in a positive manner (in the way we define biology as the study of life) and we don't define it as the presence of something (instead, we define it as the absence of things like harm or incidents).

There are many problems with this. One is that incidents happen very rarely at a workplace, so if we're solely focused on incidents, we're giving ourselves very little to learn from.

Instead, why not change your definition to safety to something like:

  • The presence of resilience
  • The presence of successes

Why define safety as something like "the presence of successes," you ask? Because you have successes almost all the time at work, and safety plays a big role in that.

If you define safety as the presence of successes, you then realize that successes are a legitimate topic of study for safety professionals. Then you can analyze your successes, find out what causes them, and help to create more.

Change Your View of Employees

In many workplaces, safety professionals see workers in these ways:

  • The problem
  • The cause of incidents
  • Something to control

Think about that. Does that sound like a reasonable summary of a lot of traditional safety to you? The belief that most incidents are caused by employees? And that employees are therefore the problem? And that therefore the best thing to do with employees is provide them training that tells them exactly what to do and what not do to? And give them procedures that they're supposed to follow to the letter every time? And, if an incident does occur, to perform a root-cause analysis, determine it was caused by "human error," and then either:

  • Assign more training to the worker
  • Discipline the worker
  • Fire the worker
  • Create a new procedure and have everyone follow it exactly from that point on

But there's a different way to think of employees. Instead of thinking of employees as the problem, you can think of them as the solution. Instead of thinking of them as the cause of problems, you can think of them as the cause of successes. And instead of thinking of them as something you need to control, you can think of them as people you can (and need to) learn from and people you must support and enable.

Study Normal Work

If workers are not a problem but the solution, and they're not the cause of problems but the cause of successes, then it makes sense for safety professionals to study the work employees normally do and to learn more about it--and in particular, to learn about why that work so often results in successes.

In the military, they conduct before action reviews (BARs) and after action reviews (AARs) to do just that. Safety professionals conduct these as well, and also conduct similar exercises that go by different names. But the primary idea is to talk with workers before and after a task and learn together from those discussions.

Another way to do this is to conduct learning team events. Learning teams are often associated with incident investigations, but they can be done to learn about and improve processes as well.

A final thing to keep in mind is that you need to expect, embrace and learn from variability. What does variability mean in this context? Think about those procedures you create: if workers follow them to the letter every time, there's no variability. But the fact is, workers probably depart from the by-the-letter instructions of your procedures frequently. Those departures from your procedures are what we mean by variability. And the follow-up fact is that those variations or departures almost always lead to successes at work (though also do sometimes contribute to failures). So you should discuss variability with workers, recognize when it's creating successes (and try to amplify that) and also raise alerts when it may cause a drift that leads to incidents.

For more on this, check out our article on Performing Pre-Task Pre-Mortems (similar to a Before Action Review).

Create a Just Safety Culture

What is a "just safety culture?" Here's how Sidney Dekker defines it:

A just culture is a culture of trust, learning, and accountability. In the wake of an incident, a restorative culture asks: "Who are hurt, what do they need, and whose obligation is to meet that need?" It doesn't dwell on questions of rules and consequences."

Sidney Dekker

One way to create a just safety culture is to encourage reporting of safety observations, near misses, and incidents, and to not punish workers for reporting these. This reporting will create a just safety culture but also contribute to organizational learning.

Another way is to openly discuss variability with employees, as discussed above, and to not punish variability.

And yet another way to do this is to perform learning team events after an incident. Again, the focus of a learning team is on learning together and not on discipline.

Leave Behind Your Focus on Compliance

Many safety professionals begin and end their day focused on compliance.

Remember that the safety regulations from OSHA and MSHA were never written with the expectation that they defined safety excellence. They were always created as the floor for safety.

While it's important to comply with regulations, if this is the end-all and be-all of your safety efforts, you're not as safe as you can be and you're not learning as much as might be if you broadened your focus in the ways we're listing in this article.

Adopt Risk Management for Safety

So if you're going to move beyond a laser focus on compliance, what should you move towards?

Risk, and risk management, and a risk-based for your occupational safety and health efforts.

Where to start? With the ANSI Z690 series of standards on risk management.

Need some help thinking this through? These interviews with Pam Walaski will help:

And, as Pam says, don't think of this as just something for the safety manager. Talk in risk terms with employees as well. Or, as she puts it, "Stop saying OSHA says."

You can read more about Risk Management and Safety here.

Adopt Systems Thinking for Safety

If you go way back to the top of this article, you'll see that Senge felt one of the key characteristics of a learning organization is to think systemically.

The "new safety" experts we've mentioned already, such as Todd Conklin, Sidney Dekker, and Eric Holnaggel, make this point for safety as well.

One takeaway here is to not assume that incidents occur as a result of a employee working in a vacuum. Instead, consider the context that the worker is making decisions in when investigating incidents. For help with this, check out our Introduction to Systems Thinking article and this white paper on Systems Thinking in Safety.

Another takeaway is to move from compliance-based safety programs to safety management systems, such as the still-new ISO 45001.

To learn more about this, check out our interview with Chris Ward, one of the creators of the ISO 45001 standard on safety management systems.

Borrow from Lean Manufacturing

Lean manufacturing has always had a strong emphasis on learning, empowering employees, and learning from employees.

Consider borrowing the following tips from lean to improve learning in your organization:

  • Gemba walks: This is similar to what you might think of a safety walk, but the emphasis isn't on correcting workers. It's about watching, listening, asking questions, and learning from workers.
  • Kaizen: Giving employees the power to make small changes on their own to improve operations, quality, safety, and more.
  • Kaizen events: Similar to kaizen, but performed by a team and usually focusing on a bigger project.

We've got more information for you here:

Participate in Knowledge Creation, Acquisition, and Sharing

Within your company, take part in efforts to create knowledge, acquire knowledge, capture knowledge, and share knowledge. There are a lot of ways to do this, including:

  • Lunch and learns with other departments
  • Helping to capture "tribal knowledge"
  • Enabling informal knowledge sharing
  • Curating learning materials
  • Setting up social learning environments (including online social media tools for your workplace)

Use Modern Job Skills and Network

And we'll end these tips by encouraging you to use 21st century skills and networking to increase learning at work.

This can start with data:

  • Collecting data: Digitize and collect data for analysis
  • Consulting evidence, data and facts when making decisions: Don't just trust your gut or go with "what we've always done."
  • Know the limits of data: Know you can't always count on data for everything
  • Use 21st century skills, including:
    • Asking questions and listening
    • Empathy
    • Critical thinking
    • Valuing diverse opinions
    • Feedback
    • Reflection
    • Digital literacy
    • Lifelong learning (see these tips from Arun Pradhan on lifelong learning and learning to learn)

And finally, know you're not in it alone and you don't have to be. Learn from these people:

  • Employees
  • Operations
  • Lean experts at work
  • Risk experts at work
  • Systems thinking experts at work
  • Designing thinking experts at work
  • Learning & development
  • IT
  • Data analytics
  • Management
  • People outside your workplace, such as on social media (read about Working Out Loud)

For more on this topic, check out the recorded webinar that I co-presented along with Assistant Professor Morgan Bliss of Central Washington University in an ASSP Training & Communications Practice Specialty webinar called "Integrating Safety into Organizational Learning Efforts."

Integrating Safety Department Nov 13 2018 from ASSP Safety on Vimeo.

Conclusion: How Safety Departments Can Contribute to the Development of a Learning Organization

Hope you found this article on how safety and contribute to a learning organization interesting and helpful.

This article began as a collaboration with Assistant Professor Morgan Bliss of the Safety and Health Management Department at Central Washington University (and work on this topic with Morgan Bliss continues). Morgan and I recently presented this topic at the Washington Governor's Industrial Safety and Health Conference, I'll present on it again at the MSHA TRAM conference, Morgan and I will discuss the topic again in a webinar for the ASSP's training and communications practice specialty, and we'll also be writing about it for the ASSP's Professional Safety magazine. Try to catch us in any of these situations as we refine and add to our message in order to learn more about safety and learning organizations.

Before you go, why not download the free guide to effective EHS training below?


Effective EHS Training: A Step-by-Step Guide

Learn how to design, create, deliver, and evaluate effective EHS training by following these best practices with our free step-by-step guide.

Download Free Guide


Want to Know More?

Reach out and a Vector Solutions representative will respond back to help answer any questions you might have.