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July 14, 2009

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War – what is it good for?

While some feel the answer to this question is “absolutely nothing”, the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu had other ideas — many of which have direct relevance to the safety and health practitioner, as Nigel Heaton explains.

The Art of War,1 written in the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu, is one of the most influential books ever produced. Largely unchanged for more than 2500 years, it has influenced military leaders from Napoleon to Mao Zedong. It has also been applied to corporate business management, being widely read and influencing Japanese and US corporate management strategies for more than 50 years.

The Art of War comprises 13 chapters, each highlighting a different aspect of war, how to wage it, and how to win it. I do not propose that managing health and safety is the same as waging war, but many of the principles and ideas espoused by Sun Tzu have direct relevance to the safety practitioner. In particular, I will consider the characteristics of the successful general and the best way to win.

I believe that by adopting some of the ideas contained in the Art of War we can be hugely successful and develop a framework that allows others to recognise the delivery of strategies that prevent bad things from happening.

The Art of War holds two principles above all others:
* Don’t wage war; and
* If you have to wage war, aim to minimise damage to all people and all property.

Planning is the key to avoiding or winning wars. Sun Tzu begins by identifying the five steps a good general should follow to be successful. These elements can also deliver value to safety practitioners, to the organisations for whom we work, and to the people who might block the changes we suggest.

1    The Way
Sun Tzu identifies the need to have — in modern parlance — a mission statement. He calls this “The Way”. Generals cannot be successful if their vision is not shared by the whole army. The Way is the process of persuading people to hold a common view. For many organisations, the health and safety “way” is expressed through a small number of easy-to-understand, easy-to-remember and easy-to-follow core values.

Organisations need to ensure these values are shared and understood by all. The health and safety “way” will influence the behaviour of everyone and will be used at every decision-making point. Consider fire-fighting: when engaged in their work, all fire-fighters understand that they will:
* risk their lives, in a highly calculated manner, to save the lives of others;
* risk their lives, in an even more highly controlled manner, to protect saveable property; and
* not risk their lives at all for lives or property that are already lost.2

Other organisations, which do not require their staff to face life-and-death decisions, may have such core values as:
* Nothing we do is worth dying for;
* Everyone can be challenged on, or can challenge, unsafe behaviours; and
* Everyone has the right to end the day in pretty much the same physical, psychological and emotional state as they started it (albeit a bit more tired).

Without an explicit statement of “the way”, how will our staff know what we value and how we expect them to behave?

2    Leadership
In attempting to define what makes a successful general, the five characteristics Sun Tzu identifies (the “virtues”) can be applied to leaders from Caesar to Churchill. These virtues are: intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.

Put simply, we expect our leaders to lead; if they don’t, we won’t follow. If our senior management team assumes that everyone in the organisation knows what it knows and has the intelligence to apply this knowledge, the organisation will fail.
Similarly, excessive reliance on trust will also fail. Just look at the House of Commons’ experience of relying on honourable members to be trustworthy! More pragmatically, a policy of “trust me, I’m a health and safety practitioner” will engender excessive reliance on the practitioner and failure by those exposed to risk to take ownership of it. It may encourage corporate bodies to devolve responsibility without legal accountability to the expert. We need to trust the expert but we cannot act based on trust alone.

Being a humane organisation is clearly important. We value health and safety from a moral perspective. However, humaneness alone will not drive change. We must act on our compassion and our understanding of the risks faced by the people doing the jobs they are required to perform.

We take a courageous approach to risk management. It’s about managing risk, not eliminating it. We do not tolerate organisations using “‘elf and safety” as an excuse. We facilitate the Body Corporate by taking assessed, reasonable risks. Health and safety is the tool we apply to allow organisations to do what they need to do, only do it better.

We are stern when we need to be. We take tough decisions and establish discipline. We aim to deliver a “just culture” — a culture in which people are held to account. We are not interested in either a blame or no-blame culture. We will hold people to account for the accidents that they have the power, authority and budgetary control to manage. We will not hold individuals to account for their behaviour unless this is a “just” decision to make. If they have an accident because of inappropriate supervision, we will hold supervisors to account. If the manager has not been provided with the resources to deliver safety, we will hold the budget-holders to account. Ultimately, we will hold the Body Corporate accountable for delivering a comprehensive health and safety management system.

3    Discipline
How do generals win wars? In discussing discipline, Sun Tzu says a successful army will be well organised, with a clear chain of command and the logistic support to wage war. Without discipline, the war will be lost. In health and safety terms, we need clear accountabilities and explicit chains of command. Managers must understand who is accountable for which risks. There must be a clear chain of command for the management of health and safety, with  clear ownership, and a logistics chain that allows the right resource to be delivered against the right risk at the right time.

4    Identifying success
Sun Tzu then looks at benchmarking: how to predict which general will win. Why are some generals more successful than others? Two characteristics determine the best generals: those with the best intelligence and the best actions based on that intelligence will win. It is not just about intelligence but also the correct application of that intelligence.

The best organisations know how to relate health and safety concerns to their mission statements. They value managers who act appropriately. Just as Sun Tzu believed it was possible to predict which of two generals would be successful, so we know that organisations who manage health and safety better, perform better (consider the HSE’s business cases3). This is not to claim that focusing on health and safety will drive better performance — rather that successful organisations are better at managing everything (and one of the things they manage better is health and safety).

5    Win by deception
The best way to win a war is to cheat. Sun Tzu advocates the use of deception as an essential military tool. So, how do we “smuggle” health and safety ideas into the corporate body? Can we reverse the usual position of “we have to do this because of health and safety” to justify many inappropriate and costly decisions, and instead use ideas such as “we do this because it is better, faster, cheaper” (and, as a side effect, it delivers a better safety performance)? We integrate health and safety concerns into all aspects of our organisation and justify interventions that are necessary from a business-case perspective.

Doing battle
Sun Tzu’s view on battle is mostly: don’t do it. If you have to go to war, harm as few of the enemy as possible, and do not destroy anything. However, when forced to fight, make sure you win. Do not fight battles you cannot win. Recognise that you will never win a sustained war in enemy territory. Reinvent your approach, change, and go for swift victory.

Look at the HSE’s approach to managing health and safety over the last 30 years. New initiatives have emerged regularly, many of them aimed at dealing with problems that are not new. A prolonged campaign in which we lay siege to a common problem will often fail. Consider the problem of bad backs. Constantly changing the way we do battle, aiming for quick wins, and varying our approach is more likely to deliver success.

Sun Tzu observes that only those who are not thoroughly aware of the disadvantages in the use of arms can be aware of the advantages in the use of arms. It is a sad fact that in many organisations, the local champions for health and safety are those with only one arm, one eye, or with a mass of scar tissue.

My experience is that many risk assessments are simply not gory enough. They do not spell out the consequence of the harm occurring. Films such as Remember Charlie4 graphically illustrate how an employee now thoroughly understands the negative effects of ignoring health and safety. We must engage organisations in a process of allowing them to understand better the downside of failing to manage health and safety.

This is not selling our profession through fear; it is simply being explicit in defining consequence. A severity is not HIGH, it is a single or multiple fatality. It is you, the manager, explaining to the relative of the deceased what happened. It is you who is interviewed — by the HSE, by the local media, and maybe by the Police. You must understand the process of failure so you can plan for success.

What messages can a 2500-year-old treatise on war deliver to safety practitioners in the 21st century? The Art of War presents a way of looking at the world, focusing on how to make a success of interacting with it. It doesn’t matter whether you are interested in war, or in health and safety — Sun Tzu’s principles of how to succeed apply: avoid conflict wherever you can, protect life and property, never fight wars you cannot win, and, if you have to fight, win by cheating. All of these seem like good rules for the safety practitioner (with a couple of qualifications on the last principle!)

More interestingly, Sun Tzu challenges us to look at the world from a different perspective. He encourages us to think about what our goals are, how they can be achieved, and how to optimise our chances of success.

The Art of War might not help in understanding and interpreting the legal position, but if our core values encompass the need to make the business case and the absolute importance of the moral argument for health and safety, then the values espoused by Sun Tzu seem critical. We, like he, believe in the sanctity of life and the importance of leadership. He, like us, espouses a common set of values.

Consider this final quote from the Art of War: “Those who are skilled in military operations achieve cooperation in a group, so that directing the group is like directing a single individual with no other choice.” The best health and safety practitioners provide value for their organisation by delivering, sharing, and implementing a single vision of a safer, better work environment.

1    This article is based on the Art of War by Sun Tzu, as translated by Thomas Cleary, and published by Shambhala in 1988. Other translations are available.
2    Home Office (2001): Dynamic Management of Risk at Operational Incidents, Vol. 4

Nigel Heaton is a director of Human Applications.

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