One of the chief tasks associated with the profession of a Process Safety Engineer is to focus on what is often called as a process safety culture. Is the company culture one that encourages its employees to do the right thing, speak out fearlessly and make calculated risk based decisions or is the culture one that encourages the employees to be reckless, being scared of speaking up and a culture that promotes retribution? Process safety incidents that has happened throughout human history has always found one critical root cause- company culture.
What is culture? One simple definition of culture would be as follows: our behaviours drive our habits; our habits are the building blocks of what we call as our culture. Why is culture important? In our professional and personal lives, our culture symbolises our identity in an ever evolving world. Where does our culture come from? I would say, just as it takes years for a person to metamorphose physically from being a baby to a boy to a teenager to an adult, culture in a person originates as follows:
- Culture from home: A home is the prime unit of a society. As we grow up we see and imbibe certain behaviours from our parents, siblings and everyone we are faced with at home.
- Culture from our social interactions: As we interact with our society, in education institutions, we see certain behaviours that aim to challenge us to be accepted and be part of.
- Culture from the media: Since the world is hyper connected than ever before since its history, the media plays an important role- internet etc. in shaping up the popular culture i.e., being a rebel, individualism etc.
- Culture from our experiences: Our struggles and varied experiences in life also form an integral part of what we call as culture.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, the sum of our habits both positive and negative forms what we call as culture. They are the building foundation of what we pass on to our future generations. It is what keeps the human race progressing forward in its march ahead.
Today when we are faced with a problem and while we try to derive solutions to that problem, little do we ever understand that our approach to that problem is based on how we handle facts, assumptions and derivatives (based on both). Our method of thinking comes from the culture that we are accustomed to or that we are faced with.
When I came to Canada years ago, I was very fortunate to be in the company of some very successful and enterprising people. These were normal people like me who came to this great country years ago, went through all the struggles both in their professional and personal lives and fought their way through the system and made it. Sitting together sometimes in the cold winter months, stories were shared about various facets of life and how they made it overcoming all obstacles and odds. These stories were highly helpful to me in ensuring the culture I needed to have once I decide to call this great place home. In my previous company where I worked, to improve the company culture, I remember story telling was used as a tool. I do believe stories that we hear and listen create our culture. Sharing stories is one of the best ways to develop a culture.
Margaret Hefferman in a TED talk about productivity talks about William Muir who did some certain experiments with chickens. The only thing that a chicken does productively is to lay eggs. Hence, he setup the chickens into two flocks. One group contained only the super productive chickens, that is the highest egg producing chickens. In the other group he had an average set of chickens. He selected the productive ones among each flocks in each generation for breeding. After 6 generations he found out that the average group had dramatically increased production and was doing great. In the super productive group, all but 3 chickens survived. The super productive ones, pecked the rest to death. This finding is contrary to what we have seen in life. We have been told that we should have a culture of individualism that intensely competes with others to get the best job, the best car, the best house and so on. Companies have been told to hire superstars (super productive and super aggressive) to move ahead. In the above experiment and throughout her talk it was showcased that in all cases, aggression, dysfunction and waste ensured.
Does this mean that a culture of superstars is bad? Nope. Further on to her talk, through various anecdotes, Margaret mentions about how companies are trying to break the silos that can be created intentionally or unintentionally between employees, so as to foster a culture of inclusion, empathy and respect for each other. It is often said that there is no ‘I’ in the team and hence everyone in the team is a vital part of its overall success.
In Walter Isaacson’s book on Steve Jobs, I fondly remember Jobs’ reply when asked whether Apple would survive after his death. He clearly mentioned that he has left behind a culture that is a critically part of Apple’s DNA which would ensure continued success henceforth. He was right. Apple grew exponentially during the time when Jobs was not in charge.
This year, if you look at companies failing, political parties losing elections, there is one common thread that can be found- they did not fail because they did not have the right people (in fact they had the best people), money, political capital etc. They lost because they did not have the right mindset, the right culture or consistent and focused approach.
I believe that at the end of the day it boils down to one thing- culture. What was your team doing, when you looked away? If you can answer that simple question, there you have your culture.
In the end, culture matters and it is all about the culture.