risk management

How to Manage Risks with Chronic Unease

Editor's Note: A warm welcome to Laura Fruhen who joins us from Australia sharing research on how chronic unease can be used to support safety management in aviation.

Chronic Unease - A State of Mind to Manage (Safety) Risks

When making everyday decisions, we rarely have all the information available. Sometimes, we deal with ambiguous information, so we may rely on assumptions. When managing safety, making sense of unclear and ambiguous information can be critical.

In this blog post, I will discuss chronic unease as a mindset that can support managers in dealing with vague and unclear information in their decision-making.

To Be Wary Is To Be Ready for the Unexpected

Some safety issues present themselves clearly. These are often issues that researchers classify as personal safety (i.e. Do workers use the right personal protective equipment?). Other safety issues can be hard to spot and equally hard to pin down. For example issues that are embedded in the processes of operations and can be visualized by Reason’s (1997) Swiss cheese. They are the holes that might be hiding in each slice of cheese (i.e. barrier).

Some organisations, such as those in the aviation sector, operate in risky contexts and are extremely capable of maintaining their safety barriers, assessing the state of their safety processes, and ensuring the holes in their barriers do not align. They are highly vigilant to weak signals of potential risks. These high reliability organisations (HROs) share certain characteristics that make their risk management so successful as they:

  • Evaluate the absence of surprises as a reason for anxiety, not complacency
  • Assume that they might not fully comprehend the complex systems that they operate and are preoccupied with failure
  • Adopt a many-angled approach of constant improvement towards safety issues

Managing Risks

Organisations don’t always manage risks collectively and it often comes down to the individual decision-maker to determine how to solve a problem or a way to go forward. In fact, organisations are in many ways systems of decision makers.

These decision makers, both individually and collectively, are potential hole-makers as well as hole-fixers in the cheese slices that keep organisations safe. The figure below illustrates the impact that managers can have on many of these barriers through the decisions that they make.

managing risk ATC

Decisions are usually made based on information. The quality of any decision then depends on the information that it is based on - and the skills, knowledge, ability and intuition of the person making the decision.

As humans, we are usually confident in our attention and our ability to notice changes in the environment and to identify (weak) signals of risk. However, the reality is that our attention is very selective and we often use mental shortcuts (called heuristics) to simplify complex problems.

Humans, while confident about their information processing abilities, are in actuality not that great at dealing with ambiguous and complex information. This video nicely illustrates some of the limitations of our attention.

In an organisational context, it can be hard to immediately identify the effects that decisions might have on operations. Similarly, it can be tricky to notice what relevant signals present themselves in the environment and which decisions are the right ones in more and more complex contexts, organisations and operations.

The Uneasy Manager

In our research, Prof. Rhona Flin and I have investigated unease and how it can support managers in their work, particularly in overcoming ambiguity and complexity in information and the environment. Unease has been highlighted as an attribute of managers in highly reliable organisations.

Chronic unease refers to the experience of discomfort and concern about the management of risks. It is a healthy skepticism about one's own decisions and the risks that are inherent in many complex and risky environments. Ultimately, it is the gut feeling that occurs when we are not quite confident in our decisions and our assessment of what is going on. For example, imagine you are an air traffic management supervisor and your employees tell you the following:

“Yesterday we broke the record for the number of arrivals in one hour”.

How do you react? Do you congratulate them? Or do you think about the pressure they may have put on the system? Do you consider the potential risks that could have degraded barriers by operating with higher levels of traffic? Do you worry about the extent to which the ATCOs (Air Traffic Controllers) might have been putting unnecessary pressure on themselves to cope with high traffic loads? Do you worry whether they focus too much on traffic throughput rather than on safety?

What about if your employees tell you the following:

“The met forecast is often inaccurate so we don’t restrict inbounds until the actual visibility falls”

What would your response be? Do you wonder about possible inbound overload due to reduced visibility? Are you concerned about how diversions are being handled? Do you reflect on where to hold inbounds and how to inform ACC (Area Control Centre) to reduce speed of next arrivals? Are you concerned about the safety implications of a forecast that is inaccurate? Are you wondering for how long this practice may have been going on? Do you worry about the reasons why you had not known about this before? Would this even keep you up at night?

Your intuitive reaction to safety issues such as the ones above can help filter attention to the issues that are most critical and focus further investigation of what might actually be going on. This intuition is often derived from experience.

This form of thinking can be particularly helpful when risk related information is ambiguous (that is, it allows for different interpretations or conflicting meanings) or unclear (where not enough is known). You can think of your intuitive reaction to safety issues as an additional piece of (highly subjective) information that you can consider to make sense of the issues that present themselves and where to focus your attention.

Why Some Managers May Be More Uneasy Than Others

Some managers might be more uneasy than others. Similarly, others might experience unease, but might not refer to it as readily in their work as a source of information. So what are the characteristics of managers that might affect these tendencies?

We have identified five characteristics that are likely to be linked to the managerial experience of unease (see Figure below).

ATC safety

We proposed that vigilance and experience will shape the extent to which managers notice (weak) signals of risks. Further, we identified that safety imagination (also labelled requisite imagination by Westrum, 1991), the managers’ propensity to worry, and their pessimism (which includes a negative outlook as well as a tendency to resist complacency) can affect the level of unease that a manager is likely to experience in response to the risks they perceive.

How to Channel Unease to Support Safety Management

Experiencing unease is only a starting point. The important question is what to do with it. Just being uneasy in itself will not help managers in their management of risks, in fact it might make them less effective. The trick is to transfer it into useful actions that can lead to better risk management.

We found that unease manifests itself in many ways in managers. That included behaviours that the safety literature has identified as having a positive effect on safety. These included:

  • Being inspirational
  • Asking for input from employees
  • Setting clear goals
  • Providing rewards
  • Making safety a priority

However, the most prevalent issue we recognised was the extent to which managers tend to channel their unease into flexible thinking.

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is the tendency to approach safety-related issues from many angles, to think about them critically and to question assumptions. Individuals who are chronically uneasy about safety-related issues are more likely to engage in flexible thinking. Doing so helps them to better solve safety-related problems, and encourage this type of thinking in their colleagues. Flexible thinking can for example entail:

  • Not jumping to conclusions
  • Avoiding standard answers as to why issues occur
  • Exploring new problems with a fresh look, while building on experience
  • Considering all sources of data and information, and identifying whether more data and information is needed
  • Critically examining the issues that are behind the situation
  • Considering each issue on its own, but also the interconnections between issues

How Much Unease is Healthy?

In our reflections about unease, we reasoned that there is likely to be an optimal, or healthy level of unease for each manager.

Too little unease might lead to complacency, so that warning signals are ignored, ambiguities are marginalised, and adverse consequences are not considered.

On the other side of the spectrum, too much unease might lead to the experience of anxiety, affecting decision making, action and over the long run, (mental) health.

The trick will be for each manager to reflect about the ways in which they react to risks, to use this as a source of information and channel it into behaviours as well as information processing strategies that are going to have a positive impact on safety.

So the next time, when that vague sense of unease sneaks up on you, don't dismiss it. Maybe the ways in which it can be put to use described here can help you to harness it so that it can support you in managing the risks in your business.

Image and video credits: Brain via author, Cheese diagram by author, based on Reason, 1997,  Incidents & Accidents diagram by author, video (c) by Daniel Simons (1999), based on research by Simons and Christopher Chabris, posted on YouTube by Daniel Simons

Additional Resources About chronic unease and the research that went into developing the concept About Laura’s work on organisational safety and leadership or to inquire about research collaborations around unease and other safety related topics

This blog post is based on the following research papers: Fruhen, L. S., Flin, R. H., & McLeod, R. (2014). Chronic unease for safety in managers: a conceptualisation. Journal of Risk Research, 17(8), 969-979. Flin, R., & Fruhen, L. (2015). Managing Safety: Ambiguous Information and Chronic Unease. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 23(2), 84-89. Fruhen, L. S., & Flin, R. (2015). ‘Chronic unease’ for safety in senior managers: an interview study of its components, behaviours and consequences. Journal of Risk Research, (ahead-of-print), 1-19.

References Reason, J. (1997). Managing the risks of organizational accidents. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited. Rochlin, G.I. (1993). Defining "high reliability" organizations in practice: A taxonomic prologue. In K.H. Roberts, New Challenges to Understanding Organizations. (pp.11-32). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. Weick, K.E., & Sutcliffe, K.M. (2006). Mindfulness and the quality of organizational attention. Organizational Science, 17, 514-524.


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Critical Controls: What Keeps You Up at Night?

airport safety assuranceToday's post on safety assurance will focus on identifying and measuring critical controls.

Checking an entire system of controls is a big job. Reporting on those checks would be an even bigger job and not necessarily a welcome thing if your senior management is as busy as mine. The company I work for employs a criticality filter to focus our accountability on those activities that mean the most.

This article is going the explore both why you might want to use criticality and how you might apply it to your long list of controls.

How Do You Manage a Deluge?

Anyone who has dealt with a large spreadsheet knows about filters. Power users of Excel or Numbers will have used them to their advantage and, if they have done it in front of others, have probably earned themselves a few admirers.

But even the most tech-noob amongst us is using filtering all the time. Human perception filters out, supposedly, unneeded data automatically either to allow us effectively operate or because our body is suffering under stress (think, tunnel vision leading passing out when subject to G-force).

As stated above, a criticality filter can take your lists of (potentially hundreds of) controls down to 3-10 and if this list if truly your most importance risk control activities, then now you have the time go into depth on these controls and then report up to your Accountable Executive in a way that they can digest, comprehend and articulate, if required.

Pick Your Favourite Child?

Once you've accepted that you need to choose some of your control activities for special attention, now you need to pick them. This is probably the part of the process where things have the potential to become contentious and to be stalled.

The primary piece of advice given to me when I was first introduced to this approach was to consider "what controls, if not working properly would keep me up of night?" At that time, I was still new in my job, so I have a few things I wanted to change and these kept me up at night already - so it was easy.

But having been through the process now, I have developed some other guidelines to help identify the critical aspects of your operations. They are proactivity, persistence and multi-purposes.

  • Proactive Controls

Don't rely on a trigger to be enacted/implemented. Obviously, this applies to activities like habitat control (grass management) and serviceability inspections.

  • Persistent Controls

These are ones that are always there during operations. Passenger screening and approach slope guidance lights are good examples having this quality.

  • Multi-purpose Controls

These are signal activities that address two or more hazards/risks. A perimeter fence is a great example of this as it address both the safety risk of animals and the security risk from agents with intent.

Don't Forget Context

As with nearly everything in the field of safety management, a definitive answer on critical controls cannot be given. Because your context will be different to mine, and even mine is changing over time.

The matrix below shows the critical controls I've been working with for the last year but they are under review at the moment.

Example Airport Critical Control Matrix (CC) Dan Parsons

Given I think that this is a contentious topic, I'd love to hear your point of view in the comments below.

In part 3, we'll go into what you do with these critical controls through the development of a standard against which your audit/review is conducted.  Part 1 provided an overview of Safety Assurance.

Photo credits: 1 is by APilotsEye 

Setting the Airport Wildlife Hazard Scene

7 Steps to Airport Wildlife Risk Management

This is part 2 of a 7  part series exploring the use of the ISO 31000 risk management framework in the Airport Wildlife Risk Management; part 1 was about establishing an Airport Wildlife Risk Management Framework.

A good airport operator knows that bird strikes and other airport wildlife hazards require special attention.  In part 1 of this series, Safety Management System (SMS) processes had identified the overall risk associated with the hazard and you began consulting with your airport stakeholders.

But before making a list of bird and animal species and checking it twice, we need to set the context for the rest of this process - after all, context is everything.

As we are dealing here with a very operational form of risk management, we are going to need a very operational context. The objectives of this step in the ISO31000 risk management process are to get all stakeholders on the same page and to pave the way for the risk assessment.

The Big Picture

There are quite a few pieces to this jigsaw puzzle and, of course, they will vary for each airport but the following is a good start.

1. Operational Context

This includes the basic details of the airport operation such as who operates the airport, its operational hours, critical aircraft, number of flights and passengers, etc. This information will plug into the analysis section of the risk assessment.

2. Environmental Context

This section starts to build a wider picture. First, I would situate the airport in the wider world - general location, basic geography and climate.  Then I get specific with the following:

  • Off-Airport Habitats and Activities  Within a 15km radius of the airport, what environments exist and activities are undertaken which will cause birds and animals to come to or transit over your airport? The big ones are human-related such as garbage dumps, sewage plants, slums, agricultural, etc. But natural environments should also be considered with natural food sources and roosting locations need to be considered.
  • On-Airport Habitats Due to the proximity to operating aircraft, this area requires more scrutiny. Each environment on the airport needs to be identified and understood. This includes natural areas like grasslands and heavier vegetation as well as man-made areas like garbage stations and perching structures.
  • On-Airport Activities Look to what you do that may attract birds. Mowing is a big one on my airport but others include lighting attracting insects and transferring garbage.

3. Historical Context

Within the airport environment, events have occurred which contribute to the risk picture.  These events include:

  • Natural Phenomena What has occurred or does occur at the airport to bring the wildlife? Seasonal weather variations, migratory activity or, as in my airport’s case, insect infestations.
  • Strike History This one is pretty straight forward and a big part of the analysis process.
  • Count History  A serious amount of bad luck is required for a bird strike, so strike data might not provide the full picture. Counts really help to fill in the gaps.

Building a Picture

This step can go a long way in identifying the sources of airport wildlife risk, but we’ll get to that next. Instead, this step can be limited to airport stakeholders discussing the context over a map or two of the airport and its surroundings. The real trick is to get this down on paper so that step forms the foundation of each progress set.

In part 3, we will get out “there” to see what birds and animals we have at and around our airport. Before you grab your sunglasses, hat and sunscreen, why not help build our context by leaving a comment below?

Additional Resources More information on wildlife hazard management and bird strikes can be found at:

Airport Wildlife Risk Management: Framework and Consultation

7 Steps to Airport Wildlife Risk Management

It can be easy for an airport operator to brush off the impact of a bird strike. The majority of the cost, estimated to be between $700 million BSC USA and $1 billion EASA per year, is borne by airlines. But aviation is a team-sport and, as an airport manager, when I get a call notifying me of a bird strike, I run through my management choices again, each and every time.

Those choices and business decisions can be tough. The effect of various wildlife management techniques can be hard to measure as there is no silver bullet.

Risk management is, of course, the method du jour for making decisions and it is making real inroads into the wildlife hazard management area. By now airports are exercising their risk management muscles through their Safety Management System and other business systems.

However, as a generic philosophy, risk management can sometimes be hard to apply in specific situations without a good understanding of the overall framework, tools, techniques, etc. In this series, we’ll look at the specifics as they relate to the important issue of wildlife hazard management.

Frameworks

Although the ICAO Safety Management  System (SMS) has its own risk management framework, it’s also a good idea to consider the almost universally accepted international standard - ISO 31000. The benefit of using the ISO standard is that it is rather agnostic about the level the process is being used.

The SMS framework is rather strategic and may not suit, without manipulation, the more operational level of a wildlife hazard management plan.

Wildlife hazard management is a process within the overall airport’s safety management system. However, when you are close to the frontline, it requires a different set of tools and approaches.

This article is the first in a series which looks at risk management in the context of wildlife hazard management in the development of a wildlife hazard management plan.

We can start the process as follows:

Consulting with Stakeholders

Actually, consultation is not the first step in the risk management process; rather, it is something you do throughout the process, in many forms. And it does not need to be a committee.

Identify

ISO 31000 sums up a stakeholders a a “person or organisation that can affect, be affected by, or perceive themselves to be affected by a decision or activity”. So you need to start with a list; possibly, a long list.

Airports need to think about internal stakeholders, on-airport, off-airport, direct relationships, indirect relationships, upstream suppliers, downstream beneficiaries, the list goes on and will vary between airports. Some airport stakeholder categories are:

  • Airlines and Aircraft Operators
  • On-airport businesses who are likely to contribute to the presence of wildlife attractants
  • Neighbouring businesses or properties who are also likely to contribute to the environment’s attractiveness to wildlife
  • Local government planning authorities and operators of essential infrastructure (think waste dump and sewage plant operators)
  • Wildlife specialists such as biologists, ornithologists, both academic and professional
  • Senior management - especially when it comes to risk attitude, tolerance and criteria

Communicate

The form of communication will vary. Sometimes, committees will be needed. Brainstorming activities to define the context and strategize treatments will work better in a group environment. Other activities like setting risk attitude might be better worked out in private.

Whichever form is chosen, it must be recordable, cooperative and two-way. Communication needs to be part of the process with its output becoming inputs in the other steps and vice versa.

Process Outcomes

ISO 31000 tells us what we want out of this process. It says that a consultative approach is designed to:

  • Help establish context;
  • Ensure the risk identification process achieves an appropriate level of completeness;
  • Provide different perspectives on risk analysis;
  • Achieve buy-in on the treatment plan

Set up to Succeed

From the above list, it is clear why consultation is critical. As we go through the remainder of the risk management process, we will, time and time again, reach back to our stakeholders to ensure that the end result is the best we can achieve. In part 2, we will dive into setting the context for the risk assessment and treatment further down the line. But in the meantime, why not consult with us on the process so far by leaving a comment below?

This article is part 1 in a series of 7 exploring the use of the ISO31000 risk management framework in  wildlife management.

Additional Resources More information on wildlife hazard management and bird strikes

About The Author: Dan manages a growing regional airport in Australia. He has also worked in the airport industry as a consultant, surveyor and inspector, including 4 years with the Civil Aviation Authority. He has a special internet in pragmatic risk management for manager in the complex and dynamic aviation environment. You can find him on Twitter.