Developing the profession – Let’s face the music01 October 2012
In the second of a series of articles examining what health and safety professionals can learn from the business practices of some of the world’s most successful companies,1 Peter Roddis discusses why practitioners need to make it easier for people to use the tools they provide.
Difficult as it may be, the health and safety profession has to face up to the fact that some aspects of what the Government is saying may be true. The message coming loud and clear from Cameron et al, Löfstedt, business and the public is that health and safety needs to be easier to understand, administer, and enforce. The public continues to express dissatisfaction with health and safety, because of its perceived overbearing and bureaucratic impact on their lives. The Löfstedt review suggested that regulations and guidance can be confusing and complex, as can the ways in which we choose to interpret and implement them. Businesses continue to see health and safety as a burden2 and feel they have to work through too many regulations.3
As a profession we are concerned by the Government’s approach, fearful that it may decide to take more drastic action, and unsure about how to take the initiative back. Essentially, we need to start by working harder at taking the complexity away; by expressing health and safety using plain, simpler, and more natural everyday language. We have to ensure that simplicity pervades every aspect of what we do. In Japan, this would be best expressed by the term ‘kanso’, which symbolises the clarity that may be achieved through omission or exclusion of the non-essential.4
Managers often feel overwhelmed when faced with the many things they need to do to comply with health and safety legislation, so we need to develop a new way of working with them. Consideration of the business-partner model, developed by Ulrich and traditionally applied to human resources, may provide a good starting point to enable us to develop a more active partnership that allows us to work more effectively within our organisations. We need to become activists, spreading the word, building trust and facilitating change. We need to help build strategy, as well as help shape our organisations to deliver business outcomes. In a world of dramatic socio-economic change, we need to embrace and foster communication and exploit new business technologies.
Everything we learned in the industrial age tended to create more and more complication. Now, people are learning that you have to simplify, not complicate; that ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication’.5 Apple has taken this principle and learned to do one thing really well: making complex things easy and elegant.6 According to its design guru Jonathan Ive, the company approaches design “by trying to achieve the most with the very least” by developing a “solution that is very simple”.7
Examples of how health and safety fails to present simple solutions to complex things – and sometimes seems to over-complicate simple things – are easy to find. Just do a Web search for ‘DSE policies’ and you will find enough examples to fill 33 pages of A4! We may congratulate ourselves on the comprehensiveness of the health and safety guides we produce but busy managers are never going to read them. We are obsessive about covering every base when what we should be obsessive about is eliminating the unnecessary. If we want to apply Apple’s ‘less is more’ approach, we need to apply kanso to everything we do and strip out the superfluous.
However, simplicity is not the easy option. Simple can be harder than complex. Steve Jobs talked about how you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple, but it’s worth it in the end because, once you get there, you can move mountains.8
Communication, communication, communication
Many of you will be thinking that’s all well and good – comparing health and safety with Apple – but what we do is not as interesting to the public and media as a new iPad, or smartphone. But what we forget is that what we do saves life and limb and protects health. Considering the power of this message, it should be easy to win public opinion and support, but we need to communicate authentically and inspire people.
Instead, we seem to have adopted a language that is far from motivating and is often obtuse, vague and confusing. To change this we need to become “professional communicators”9 and that means we have to communicate with simplicity. Years ago, society appreciated and almost expected experts to communicate using convoluted language that reflected their expertise and knowledge. The world has changed and the use of language based on everyday conversation, which is simple, clear and direct, is now appreciated and seen as smart.
According to Wittgenstein, “if you can’t explain something in common, everyday language you haven’t mastered the information”.10 We need to learn from the way that Steve Jobs communicated – in a conversational way, simple, clear and direct. If Jobs had been a safety professional he would never have used the jargon that clouds many health and safety presentations — terms like ‘reactive monitoring’, or ‘risk control systems’, or ‘root-cause analysis’. These are all phrases that we love as professionals, because they capture key concepts that are important aspects of the systematic approach we need to take. But they mean nothing to the lay-person and thus present a barrier to engagement, no matter how well we explain them.
Insecure health and safety professionals create complexity, which increases bureaucracy. They develop thick tomes of documentation and deliver training using busy slides filled with everything they’ve ever learnt since they sat their NEBOSH Diploma. They worry that if they’re simple, people will think they’re not very knowledgeable. In reality, of course, it’s just the reverse: “clear, tough-minded people are the most simple.”11 Overly cautious and limiting expert opinion, formed in isolation from the reality of our businesses, fails to give the situation enough thought and will not influence anyone. Being overly reliant on legislation and ‘best practice’ serves the purpose of the professional, not the manager. Showing how clever you are may fulfil you but it just annoys your customers.12
The way we train and the way we use Powerpoint is a prime example of our sometimes convoluted approach. PowerPoint is seen as the way to communicate to business audiences, yet we use it so badly. The outcome fuels our reputation for being dry and boring when we need to be inspirational and entertaining. Death by PowerPoint and legislation has, unfortunately, become too common. Too many health and safety presentations are read out loud by the trainer, full of detail, including all the relevant legislation.
The best presentations are where the person presents the content and the Powerpoint slides reflect and support what they are saying. It takes guts to stand up and present a slide that contains one word or image, but it’s far more powerful when it’s done well. The communications that have most impact are where you tell a simple story about the real world, to which people can relate and which is supported by slides, pictures and videos. When you follow a story you get inside the idea, you live the idea, you feel the idea.13
Part of simplicity is obsessing over the customer experience. To change how we are perceived we must take control, and that means end-to-end responsibility for the user experience. We can have the greatest ideas in the world, completely different and novel, but if we can’t convince enough people, then it doesn’t matter. Thus, our role is not just about pushing knowledge of health and safety to those whose minds we want to change but also about engaging people in an active partnership, or dialogue, where we also try to understand where they are coming from, thus resulting in more creative and innovative outcomes. We need to think more in terms of the dance; moving with those around us, rather than telling others to dance to our tune.14
To achieve and maintain simplicity we need to understand better what our clients are trying to achieve. According to Steve Jobs, “to design something really well, you have to get it, you have to really grok (sic) what it’s all about”.15 Whenever we provide advice and support, it has to be on the same basis; we have to really understand the businesses that we work in. The aim is to give smart people the information they need to achieve what they need to do in the workplace.
We need to focus on the benefits. Ted Levitt used to tell his Harvard Business School students: “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill—they want a quarter-inch hole.”16 People will judge health and safety by our performance, so we need to be more focused on the outcome. It’s not just about providing tools to enable our clients to work safely, it’s about providing outcomes that work for them. Senge identified this as a “fitness to need”,17 which means we need to understand better what the customer needs and then provide services that reliably meet those needs. Jobs captured it more evocatively when he said: “It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something – chew it up, not just quickly swallow it”.15
Whenever we provide support we need to consider what impact our advice will have on business practice – at an operational level and in terms of outcomes. We need to understand the business environment and markets within which we operate. We need to provide support at operational and strategic levels and make sure the two are aligned. We need to understand operational activity nearly as well as the line managers we support. We also need to understand better the wider organisation and its strategic objectives.
We often talk about relating what we do to business objectives, when we really need to be shaping the agenda ourselves. No longer can we look at regulations or guidance and say: that’s how it is and you need to comply. We need to harness the collective knowledge of the organisations that we work in and for. According to Apple’s Jonathan Ives: “There is, within Apple, a strong belief in people focusing on their area of expertise, but when a product is being developed the process can be quite fluid. As we’re sitting together to develop a product you would struggle to identify who the electrical engineer was, who’s the mechanical engineer, who’s the industrial designer.”18 That is what we should be aiming for in our interactions.
What we need to learn from leading-edge organisations is that success is about delivering a level of service that our customers have never experienced before and would never think to ask for. To exceed their expectations we need to create ‘insanely great experiences’, and the quest for simplicity has to pervade every part of that process.
Brilliant musicians obsess over the smallest details, like the exact sound of a drumstick.19 They spend hours and hours until the track sounds just right. We need to apply the same attention to the design of the health and safety services that we provide. Steve Jobs captured what this means when he said: “We made the buttons on the screen look so good you’ll want to lick them. Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”
Focus and simplicity were Steve Jobs’ mantras and I have explored how important these are to health and safety. Our focus has got to be on the outcomes and not just on the regulations. If we are to design an offer that is attractive to our customers then we have to realise that less is more, and work harder at stripping out the superfluous from what we do.
We need a clean break with the past. Overly cautious and limiting expert opinion, made in isolation from the reality of the businesses we work for, will not influence anyone. We need to develop the confidence to explain effectively who we are, what we do and what we are trying to achieve. To do this, we can “walk the straight path of simplicity, or choose the dark winding road of complexity”;20 the choice is ours.
- Roddis, P (2012): ‘Brand of opportunity’, in SHP July 2012, Vol.30 No.7 – www.shponline.co.uk/features-content/full/developing-the-profession-brand-of-opportunity
- Businesses still see H&S compliance as a burden’, in SHP August 2012, News, p8 – www.shponline.co.uk/news-content/full/businesses-still-see-h-s-compliance-as-a-burden
- Löfstedt, R (2011): Reclaiming health and safety for all: An independent review of health and safety legislation
- Reynolds, Garr (2009) – www.presentationzen.com/presentationzen/2009/09/exposing-ourselves-to-traditional-japanese-aesthetic-ideas-notions-that-may-seem-quite-foreign-to-most-of-us-is-a-goo.html
- Trout, J (2001): The Power of Simplicity: A Management Guide to Cutting Through the Nonsense and Doing Things Right, McGraw Hill
- Chazin, S (2007): Marketing Apple (eBook) – www.marketingapple.com Marketing_Apple_eBook.pdf
- Jonathan Ive interviewed by L’uomo Vogue magazine, April 2009
- Steve Jobs quoted in Business Week, 25 May 1998
- Peters, T (1999): The Professional Service Firm50: Fifty Ways to Transform Your ‘Department’ into a Professional Service Firm Whose Trademarks are Passion and Innovation
- Wittgenstein, L (1993): Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951, Hackett
- Welch, J and Welch, S (2005): Winning, Harper Collins
- Dormandy, Alex – http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/alexisdormandy/100007305/in-business-simplicity-is-difficult/
- Denning, S (2002): ‘RSA Lectures – How storytelling ignites action’, 23 January 2002
- Senge, P (2006): The Fifth Discipline. The heart and practice of a learning organization, Random House.
- Steve Jobs interviewed by Wired magazine in 1996 – www.wired.com/ wired/archive/4.02/jobs_pr.html
- Christensen, CM, Cook, S, and Hall, T (2005): Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure
- Senge, P (1990): ‘The leader’s new work: building learning organisations’, in Sloan Management Review, Fall 1990
- Jonathan Ive interviewed by the Daily Telegraph 23 May 2012 – www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/apple/9283706/Jonathan-Ive-interview-simplicity-isnt-simple.html
- Segall, Ken (2012): Insanely Simple. Penguin – http://kensegall.com/insanely-simple-book/
Peter Roddis has more than 25 years’ experience in health and safety.
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