This is the fifth and last eposiode of a series about procedures by Anders Ellrestrand. The previous episodes can be found here: 0 – Introduction, 1 – Design Process, 2 – Memory Aid, 3 – Training, 4 – Collaboration.
Your procedures constitute your organisational baseline. They are the standard and the norm. By that, procedures also limit the behaviour – of staff, the organisation, and of the system.
By this it is possible to monitor the organisation and to notice any variability. There is a possibility to notice the gap between ‘work-as-imagined’ and ‘work-as-done’. We have already established that there will always be a gap but also that it is good if the gap is not too large. A large gap can be the start of a system that drifts into areas where hazards are not pre-identified, and where the associated risks are not assessed and mitigated.
In many organisations, the distance between ‘the blunt end’ (management and support functions) and ‘the sharp end’ (operators) is too large. The gap between WAI and WAD goes unnoticed until a time when there is an incident and where an investigation reveals ‘unacceptable’ non-compliance with procedures. When there is an investigation into an incident, there is often a pressure to quickly find the cause and then to establish an action that will stop re-occurrence. It could be tempting to not spend the necessary effort to find all the contributing factors, but instead point at the human at ’the sharp end’; the ‘human factor’.
If the gap between WAI and WAD instead is discovered as a result of closely monitoring daily, normal operations, it could be easier to ask the relevant questions and consider more options. Are there procedures in place that does not make sense to the people supposed to use them?
In a row of posts, I have pointed at several areas where procedures are important, helpful and where they are necessary for an organisation to function. However, procedures can also make work more difficult. Procedures can restrict flexibility and make necessary adaptations more difficult or even impossible. When procedures are too strict/limited it can become necessary to deviate from them to be able to get the work done.
There is a debate about procedures (and rules and regulations) and you can identify two hard-core schools:
• Procedures are the norms of an organisations. If they are fully complied with, work gets done in a correct and safe way. Most, if not all problems, come from non-compliance, often labelled as ‘human error’.
• Procedures are part of a top-down control and limit the human ability. Procedures are obstacles that makes it more difficult for people to address real-world problems in an ever-changing and complex world.
As usual, the truth is somewhere in a large grey zone between these positions. We should aim at writing procedures in a way that provides the necessary flexibility, for the operator to be able to adapt to different situations, while still following the procedures. At the same time, the procedures must maintain their role of limiting behaviour, maintaining their normative function.
This is, of course, much easier said than done.