by John Livingston and Chad Thrasher
[Editor’s note: This Opinion piece originally appeared in Vol 40 Issue 1 of Journal of System Safety in January-February 2004. It has been reformatted from the original, but the text is otherwise unchanged.]
The motto on our System Safety Society coffee mugs proclaims that we are “Professionals Dedicated to the Safety of Systems, Products and Services.” But what are the attributes necessary to turn that dedication into effective practices that are the mark of an outstanding professional?
Most employment ads for system safety professions will list education, areas of expertise and years of experience as requirements. They may also require certain capabilities, such as strong communication skills (written and spoken), and an ability to navigate standard desktop tools such as word processing software. Some may even have the insight to ask for specific analytical skills or the ability to systematically address specific systems or processes. Advertisements for senior or management positions may add organizational or administrative skills to the list. Descriptions of openings for top-level positions may call for promotional skills that seem more appropriate for a “company cheerleader” than for the manager of a serious technical or analytical effort.
What makes an outstanding system safety professional goes beyond a desire to do our best and the possession of the kinds of technical knowledge and skills cited in the employments ads. There is a range of personal qualities that contribute to a higher and broader level of performance. These qualities, which make up our “System Safety Character,” are an important part of everything we do and must come to the forefront in crisis situations and in the making of key risk decisions. These include:
- The ability to recognize potential risks and safety issues:
- A perspective and an imagination that identifies hazards, supported by an inventiveness that aids in the formulation of solutions
- The ability and enough healthy skepticism to recognize issues with proposed solutions to safety issues and false closure logic
- A thorough understanding of our risk analysis tools and the ability to apply them to real-life situations (which may require real-time solutions)
- A clarity and depth of vision of the safety aspects of the total operation, understanding the program as a whole and the interrelationships of the individual components
2. The ability to identify an issue must be coupled with a willingness to speak out. For example, the safety personnel present at critical meetings while Columbia circled the earth during the STS-107 mission were dedicated, and they knew the related safety assessments. Yet the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Report criticized their performance, noting,
“… safety personnel were present but passive and did not serve as a channel for the voicing of concerns of dissenting views.” “Safety representatives attended meetings of the Debris Assessment Team, Mission Evaluation Room, and Mission Management Team, but were merely party to the analysis process and conclusions instead of an independent source of questions and challenges.”[CAIB Report, vol. I, p. 170]
The CAIB also drew discomforting parallels to the “silent” role of a previous generation of safety professionals noted in the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger accident in 1986. Part of the willingness to speak up is the acceptance that this may require taking an unpopular stand, even to the point of nonconcurrence with a majority opinion.
3. Every outstanding practitioner exhibits certain leadership qualities:
- The skill to “win over” others to their position, including the ability to present a position and defend it
- A sense of teamwork that encourages inputs from all parties involved
- The ability to focus on the issue and the search for the best solution
- A sense of fairness, honesty and respect for opposing positions
4. A sense of responsibility that acknowledges the expectations of the customer (developer and/or user of the product):
- Relentless pursuit of resolution of issues
- Meticulous system analysis (including hazard identification and resolution)
- Commitment to the role of safety advocate
5. The most overlooked quality in our system safety character is the ability to critically review our own performance. Successful self-assessment requires the application of all of our knowledge and skills. It requires an assessment of both the quality of the system safety effort (products and services) and how the effort is utilized. The CAIB Report observed that,
“Structure and process places Shuttle safety programs in the unenviable position of having to choose between rubber-stamping engineering analyses, technical efforts, and Shuttle program decisions, or trying to carry the day during a committee meeting in which the other side almost always has more information and analytic capability.”[CAIB Report, vol. I, p. 187]
Clearly, this is not the kind of situation that leads to the best products or the most effective contribution to a program.
In short, we would submit that it takes more than dedication, knowledge, experience, special skills and even knowledge of the latest safety fight song. We would add system safety character, which includes a little common sense and a lot of true grit.
The authors, John Livingston and Chad Thrasher, are officers in the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the System Safety Society.