The degree of slowness is directionally proportional to the intensity of memory. The degree of speed is directionally proportional to the intensity of forgetting.”
Milan Kundera, Slowness

Every industry uses speed as a measurement to quantify productivity.  That productivity, whether gallons or railcar loads, is a tangible result that translates into revenue for a company.  Speed is not as obvious with safety.  Since all of safety work is centered around prevention of loss, it can become hard to measure when safety work is productive until after the fact.  The speed, however, can be measured; the length of time that is used to perform hazard analysis, to implement mechanical integrity programs, to complete management of change, and more.  Each element of process safety management requires critical thinking.

Each element contains portions where people ask questions, but it can be hard to ask pertinent ones.  The right question can reduce team time, so that the members can return to their other responsibilities at the plant.  In other words, the speed at which pertinent thoughts occur matters.  Since speed matters in production and safety, how can one maximize the speed of thought?

Think, Think, Think…

Questions are used at multiple points in the Safety Lifecycle.  Within Process Hazard Analysis or Incident Investigations, the scope of the questions can be anywhere between broad and narrow.  Too broad, and you waste the team’s time; too narrow, and hazards could be missed.  Finding a proper balance can lead to better implementation of safety practices, making the facility less likely to have incidents.  A parallel can be drawn between the types of questions and how the brain views them.

Fast and Slow Brain

The scope of thought can be divided into the Visual Literacy and Human Performance concept of Fast Brain versus Slow Brain.  Fast Brain is where quick thinking is done, usually part of reactionary actions that allow people to act fast in the course of an event.  Slow Brain, on the other hand, is where more analysis allows the person to home in on the specifics.  Slow Brain requires more cognitive resources, thereby taking more time.  For example, while an athlete is in the middle of a sport, they are more likely to rely on instinct and simpler thoughts such as hit the ball over there, take the shot, or cut to break a tackle.  After the game, the team and coaches review the footage and make changes to practices to remedy future mistakes.  The thoughts and questions that pop up during film review illustrates the Slow Brain concept, while the instinctual thoughts in the game are using Fast Brain thinking.

To bring the concept to Process Safety, think about how after an incident occurs, the initial questions are broad: What happened? Is anyone hurt? Is equipment damaged?  These questions fit more to Fast Brain, as the questions come quick and can be brought to witnesses quickly after the area is secured.  Once the initial assessment and evidence has been collected, specific questions can be raised focusing on the initial causes and what can be done to prevent the event in the future.  These questions are predicated on more information and individual analysis, which can be tied to Slow Brain thinking.  Incident investigation is not the only element in the Safety Lifecycle that can be looked at from this perspective.

Process Hazard Analysis

When it comes to PHAs, most methods have predefined starting questions.  HazOps have questions based on deviations, checklists have items, and other methods start with a basic set.  It depends on the group then, to determine the detail or scope of the question, and by extension, the detail or scope of the answer.  One member could focus on one part of the process as the main source of hazards, while a different member is more concerned with another.  It is like the old story of the blind men and the elephant.  Everyone sees a part, but not the whole scope.  Yet, going through with a broad brush could miss pieces of the process that can be of great concern.

Balancing the two extremes in the case of a HazOp is performed before the analysis gets started by making nodes.  The size of the nodes in a HazOp can have an impact to the speed of thought.  The nodes are the building blocks and primer to the scope of the questions used in the analysis.  We have found that when reviewing the same process with two separate teams using different sizes of nodes, that the team using smaller nodes caught more hazards and took less time.  By sizing the nodes accordingly, the group with the smaller nodes were able to rely on Fast Brain thinking more often without missing any key hazards.  However, a facilitator could still end up with a group that fixates on a specific part of a node with less credible scenarios, wasting time and resources.  This shows that a hazard analysis, while designed to move smoothly, is still dependent on the people involved to implement it.  When it comes to thinking in hazard analysis, balance is key.

Photo credit:  Openclipart via Pixabay

Timing is Essential

No matter the method, the Safety Lifecycle requires critical thinking when posing questions.  Getting to the appropriate questions can take time and may look different when working on different parts of the cycle.  The drive to eliminate waste causes those in any position to obtain the correct answers promptly.  Finding the correct question to get there, however, may take more or less time than expected.

Pump the Brakes!

Assigning priorities and taking time to reflect on them are essential to solving any problem.  It may be time to reflect and consider the speed at which you go through safety activities. Do things need to slow down to consider better ideas?  A more concise question might be a boon to help identify another source of a hazard.  Has your analysis process been too slow as you consider options that are not credible?  Maybe you are looking too closely at the details.  Since different processes require different questions and scopes, a good question to start with may be: What is the speed of thought here?