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Worker Response to Abnormal Conditions Creates Enormous Impact on Organizational Reliability

November 1, 2019

Individuals need to accept personal reliability to improve organizational reliability

Every day individual employees in organizations are exposed to situations that get their attention. When these occur, the person involved will consider the situation either abnormal or normal and then their response and actions will either positively or negatively impact the entire organization.

Individuals oftentimes go out of their way to avoid or ignore data so they can believe that normal or perceived normal conditions exist, meaning they need to take little or no action. [1] Even when individuals agree that a condition is abnormal, their reaction to the abnormal circumstances can take two paths. One is that they recognize the abnormality and then declare that “someone” should do something about it. This is referred to as corporate accountability. The other is that they recognize the abnormality and they act to address the issue. This is referred to as personal accountability.

Personal Reliability Is Key to Improving Organizational Reliability

Organizations are made up of individuals. The only way for an organization to become more reliable is if the individuals become personally reliable. In the previously described scenarios, only one type of employee behavior can improve the reliability of the organization. With the others, the organizational reliability will at best stay the same and could even become dramatically worse.

Take the following simple example.

An employee is walking through a chemical processing plant and notices a piece of equipment that sounds strange to him/her. Let’s examine the possible responses captured above and see the organizational result. The result is organizational because this piece of equipment is integral to the chemical manufacturing process and if that process is not reliably running the entire process could shut down.

Normal and Perceived Normal - The outcome is the same for both. As soon as the employee determines that the sound, although strange to them, is normal, the employee decides no action is needed. No action is taken because, as stated above, if something is thought to be normal, most individuals will take no action. Benchmarking or a third-party view is a good way for a company to evaluate if what they have grown to perceive as normal is, in fact, very abnormal.

Corporate Accountability - An employee detects abnormal equipment activity, but rationalizes that, because it is not their area of expertise or responsibility, that they are not personally accountable to act. They assume someone who is involved with the equipment will act when they discover this apparent abnormality. There are many issues with this type of response. The strange sound may be intermittent. Due to its frequency, the person who detected the sound may be the only person with a chance to react. The timing of this strange sound may be a sign of imminent catastrophic failure. When someone perceives something to be abnormal, it usually is, but corporate accountability will cause the individual to shy away from reacting to it.

Personal Accountability - Abnormal activity is detected and the person acts. Their action will cause some impact on the abnormal situation. The person does not have to be responsible for the area or be the one to correct the problem. All they need to do is tell someone in the area of responsibility about the observation, and then assume that either the abnormal situation will be corrected or determined to actually be normal. In either case, the reliability of the equipment will be sustained or enhanced, and the result is organizational reliability.

The actions of individuals create reliability for the organization. To continuously improve that organizational reliability, the population of individuals acting with personal accountability must continue to grow.

This can be accomplished by educating employees at all levels on how they can take proactive actions to improve reliability. Through the detection of abnormal events and the minimization of the impact of unplanned events, employees can have a positive effect on organizational reliability. In the past, the approach to improving reliability was very siloed; it was believed that only a certain group of people could positively impact reliability. Through expansion of the responsibility for reliability to all functions, organizations can begin to deliver higher levels of reliability that can greatly impact the bottom line.

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Figure 1: Improving operational reliability requires that workers become personally reliable in addressing events in the workplace.

[1] Goldhill, Olivia. 26 March 2017. Humans selectively edit reality before accepting it, a review of decades of social and economic behavior shows. 
https://qz.com/941817/humans-selectively-edit-reality-before-accepting-it-a-review-of-decades-of-social-and-economic-behavior-shows