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March 13, 2015

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Nothing SMART about Zero

zero-38418_1280I moved to Australia from the UK just over a year ago to take up a new role with a consultancy in Sydney. Prior to that I had been working in the rail industry in the UK where I had numerous challenging discussions about the use of Zero in one of its many guises as a corporate safety objective. When I refer to Zero in this article I am referring to any safety campaign based with Zero in the title or as an objective (e.g. Zero Harm, Target Zero, etc.) I have in the past undertaken a fair amount of research into Zero, or more correctly the arguments against it, and found that it was widely used throughout Australia, with some jobs even titled as ‘Zero Harm Managers’.

I recently gave a presentation at the 4th Safety Psychology Conference in Sydney and my talk covered the journey that the UK rail industry has made over the last few years. I talked in detail about Network Rail’s recent ‘Safety 365’ initiative and how this was effectively a version of a Target Zero campaign which rewarded staff and contractors for not having incidents for 365 days. I discussed how this had led to gross under-reporting of incidents across the industry in order that projects and organisations appeared to have no safety incidents, while in reality they were often being covered up. The Rail Safety Standards Board (RSSB) covered this in an independent report.

Given my preconceptions of the Australian safety profession I expected the delegates at the conference to disagree with my views and challenge my opinions on the Zero approach, however I found the vast majority were of a similar view. Over the two-day conference, four other speakers also mentioned Zero, and all of them from a similar position that it didn’t work and we needed to move away from it.

I was very pleased to see that these industry thought leaders shared my point of view and we discussed the concept at some length. There was a general consensus that safety professionals wanted to move away from the Zero approach but that senior management were pushing it and couldn’t comprehend why it would be an issue.

From my own experience I have seen leaders who have heavily promoted a Zero approach. In some cases I think that as they have personally invested so much time and energy into the approach they would consider themselves to be losing face if they changed tack. One comment I like to use in this context is that it’s like trying to convince a priest not to believe in God. Some priests do actually lose their faith during their career, but because they’ve invested their life in the church, they feel they have to publically maintain their front and nothing will convince them to leave.

At the conference in Sydney we discussed how to approach the problem of convincing management not to use Zero, but at the time we were stuck for ideas. There are people out there also working to this end, in particular Dr Robert Long whose book ‘For the Love of Zero’ is a must read for all safety professionals. But there is still a large proportion of the industry who, using the religious metaphor once more, see Dr Long as a heretic and will not have anything to do with him or his methods.

Since then, I have been thinking about an approach to help convince people that Zero is not the way to go, but it has not been an easy thing to do. On the surface Zero sounds like a great idea and that is the reason why it’s been so widely adopted. It’s only when you take the time to look into the psychology of Zero and the case studies of how it can actually make things worse that you begin to see the problem. The vast majority of people don’t have the time or resources to do this and so we need to find a way to make the message as simple as possible.

A SMART Objective

I have always been told that when setting an objective it has to be SMART; that is Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. Some people have different interpretations of these terms, but this is the one I am used to working with and what I am going to use for this discussion. For each of these measures I am going to give my views on whether a Zero approach meets the relevant SMART requirement to be considered a good objective.

Specific – Is Zero specific? Well, the number certainly is and the common objectives of Zero Harm or Zero Accidents therefore seem pretty specific. At first glance, it seems to pass this test but I will come back to this later.

Measurable – This is a tricky one, a lot of people would say of course it is measurable, why would there be any doubt that it’s not? The problem is that it that it relies on people to report incidents, and only if they are reported can they be measured. People cannot be relied upon to report all accidents, even those with the best intentions will under-report and there will always be more potential reasons for this under-reporting than any organisation is able to manage. This is backed up by evidence such as the RSSB report into Network Rail that I mentioned earlier.

Achievable – To me the word ‘achieve’ means working towards something, to put in effort to reach a desired outcome. Training all of your life to run 100m in less than ten seconds is an achievement. You can’t claim something is an achievement because it just happens, I don’t get an Olympic gold for walking 100m. You need to differentiate an achievement from an event. Can you get a ‘Zero’ accident? Yes, of course you can, but this is more often down to luck (and under-reporting) than anything else.

I have seen organisations with very poor safety management practices complete a project with no reported accidents, while other organisations with extremely good safety systems have accidents. Why is this the case? The answer is simple: people. People make mistakes, they make them all the time, unless you can eliminate people from your process you can never claim that Zero is something you can actually achieve.

Realistic – Is it realistic for people not to have accidents? No, of course it’s not, most people injure themselves on a regular basis, whether it’s a paper cut, a scalded finger, a burn from the iron, or a twisted ankle. For most of us, not a week goes by without us injuring ourselves in some way. Why do we accept this as part of life for 138 hours of the week, but not the 40 that we’re at work? This is where Zero really begins to be a problem as now we have to start changing the goalposts to suit our needs. I have heard numerous people justifying Zero by stating things such as measuring Zero actually only applies to major accidents or lost time accidents, not all minor cuts and scratches.

I’m going to take us back to that first test: is Zero specific? It now turns out that it’s not. It’s obvious to most people that you can never have a 100 per cent injury free workplace, so people change the meaning of Zero to suit their needs by filtering out minor incidents and increasing the bar of what is being measured.

Time-bound – Most Zero programmes are a bit schizophrenic when it comes to measuring Zero. The objective will be set as Zero forever, but then they measure success each year, although as often as not they fail to meet the target of Zero. So how exactly do you set a timescale? On the one hand, the longer you make the timescales, the harder it is to achieve and on the other, the longer you go without an incident the more likely people won’t report it because they don’t want to mess up their statistics.

If your objective is to go a full year with Zero incidents, then what do you think happens on day 364 when somebody has an accident? The pressure on them to leave it unreported is immense and it’s simply not fair to put the pressure of an organisation’s objective on the shoulders of one person. If you have a positive objective like achieving a financial target, if it fails to be met then the entire company is responsible, if you fail to meet a Zero target then only the people who have reported their accidents are responsible.

What’s not SMART?

For an objective to be SMART it has to meet all five of the tests described above. In my view, Zero fails on all five counts. I have no doubt that many people would fervently argue that I am wrong on all five points, but I do hope that rather than going on the defensive immediately, people will take the time to review each of my arguments and see that at least some of them make sense to them and as such, Zero does not pass all five tests and therefore cannot be considered a SMART objective.

If, as an organisation, you still wish to continue to use a Zero objective then why don’t you consider if it passes the DUMB objective test instead:

  • Deluding ourselves that out programme must be working because we’ve invested significant amounts of money in it.
  • Unable to actually measure the output because it relies on people reporting accidents, and people won’t do this 100 per cent of the time.
  • Management focused objective, designed to make the board feel like they’re doing something about safety with no real consideration for the views of the workforce.
  • Blindly following the crowd and not looking at the latest research and the use of positive safety objectives.

So what are the alternatives to Zero? Well, there are plenty of different approaches out there, and while I don’t have the space to cover them here, my recommendation would be to make the safety message a positive one, something that people can look to and understand, and if you do put in place any objectives make sure that they pass the SMART test.

Andrew Petrie is head of safety and assurance for Network Rail Consulting in Sydney, Australia

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9 years ago

I find there is a similar issue in England in relation to RIDDOR as tenders punish companies who have reported under RIDDOR irrespective of the incident, following investigation, lessons learnt and improvements

Matthew J Beckett
Matthew J Beckett
9 years ago

Great article, was going to share with my colleagues until i read the last paragraph, and felt that it would probably offended therm considering our target of zero harm. (I will most definitely be having the discussion).

You referred to the book “for the love of zero”, yet trying to get a copy of it is proving to be near on impossible via amazon? Is it still in print?


Nick Wharton
Nick Wharton
9 years ago

Well said Andrew. I love your DUMB objective descriptors. This still doesn’t take away the real benefit of believing in the principle that all injuries are preventable – which is different to setting zero as an objective. Without the belief we will never achieve the goal, even with the belief we might still not achieve it but at least we will be working towards it.

Max Geyer
Max Geyer
8 years ago

A great article Andrew, very well put. At risk of looking like I am trying to one-up you (and I respectfully apologise if it looks like that) I attach here a link to a 2 part paper I presented at the inaugural Psychology of Risk conference (co-organised by Dr Rob Long and the ACU) in Sydney in March this year. It goes to the whole feasibility of perfectionism (zero harm) in an organisation and asks whether in fact perfectionism, in its form as “zero”, is ever possible. It is aimed at examining the message sent by leaders when they talk… Read more »