Sherlocking Safety

Sherlock's tales consistently show there's typically more going on than what's on the surface.

For as long as I can remember, I've been an ardent Sherlock Holmes fan. I've admired his intelligence, perceptiveness, calmness under pressure, open-minded quest for improvement and drive–as well as his understated but effective martial arts skills. And from the resounding successes of recent Sherlock movies, television shows, books, and miniseries, I deduce this famous character has struck a resounding chord with many others, as well.

A recent documentary focused on Holmes' significant impact on police work, even to this day; professionals dubbed Sherlock "The First C.S.I." (Crime Scene Investigator), crediting him with inspiring scientific breakthroughs in their field. Personally, the Canon (as Sherlock fanatics describe the original Arthur Conan Doyle writings) was my inspiration for becoming an organizational consultant–seeking to apply strategic thinking and below-the-surface perception to first find and then move leverage points toward positively propelling significant safety and overall organizational improvements.

But what might seem "elementary" to a brilliant character may not be as readily clear to many of us. Here, in my view, are some of Sherlock Holmes' key approaches and how you might apply these to enhancing Safety and performance.

Maintain a clear and open mind. Adapting this principle to incident/Safety investigations is perhaps the most obvious application of Sherlock's methods.

True to English Law, treat people as innocent until proven "guilty." Keep foremost in mind that accidents are always a resultant of multiple contributing factors–organizational, individual, environmental, design–and that overly focusing on one type limits likely shifts attention away from clearly observing the full range of underlying contributors. Remember to enlist your senses, Holmes-like; as well as being a brilliant observer, Sherlock was also noted for being a keen listener to draw in as much data as possible.

One of the Great Detective's most noted sayings: "It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

But in real life, maintaining a Sherlock-like fresh and mindful view of contributing factors in safety investigations is easier to say than do. Most of us are unknowingly driven by biases, directed by likes and dislikes, blinded by untested assumptions or by principles that might have applied to certain situations in the past but aren't relevant to a current "case." Take, for example, a worker who has experienced repeat accidents; it's easy to allow frustration to lead toward reflexively blaming this person's individual failings for the fourth in a seemingly continuous series of accidents--even before hearing the facts. But if you prejudge, it's difficult to truly unearth what really went on in the incident. And what you don't see can't be engineered or procedured or trained out to prevent similar problems. Even if the worker's personal factors played a significant role in past accidents, how do you know, without looking freshly looking at the facts, that this current incident isn't different?

Be an ardent pursuer of results, rather than just settling for “easy" answers. In Conan Doyle's tales, many senior police officials blindly leaped to conclusions that were later proven inaccurate. Holmes saw this defaulting to unimaginative, easy answers as the sign of a lazy mind. Similarly, safety leaders should determine whether a relatively easy intervention actually helps solve a problem or is merely checking off the box of having done "something." Do interventions such as generic Internet-based "training" or video instruction, going through stock/pro-forma safety investigation questions, giving out lumbar belts or gamey reinforcers to everyone, creating one-size-fits-all policies actually and sustainingly motivate workers and change actions? Too often, I've observed that best intentions can generate surprisingly lukewarm or even negative results.

Observe the small things. Sherlock's tales consistently show there's typically more going on than what's on the surface. In fact, he remarked, "The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes," and "You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles," and "It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important." Note "small things," such as levels of interaction in safety meetings, tones of voice when referring to management or workers, silences that might be tense rather than relaxed….

Combine deduction with induction. Sherlock reflected, "There is nothing like first-hand evidence." While he was purportedly the master of deduction (reasoning from a pre-conceived model), Holmes balanced this with induction (evidence-driven reasoning.) Similarly, strongest leaders keep in mind effective templates for improvement (e.g., heightening engagement through training employee peer catalysts) and also listen and watch for early signs of resistance and buy-in, acceptance or going around newly instituted procedures, and more. And then adjust their plans and actions accordingly. In other words, they, like Holmes, continue to test their assumptions, even when "convinced" they are right. So it's important to base decisions on evidence rather than solely on intellectual constructs, or past-based assumptions, or "what's worked at another company."

Explain your thoughts and plans in advance to trusted companions. Holmes said, "Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person." So he continuously utilized Dr. Watson as a sounding board. You can do the same by trying out your ideas with your own brain trust before you potentially go out on a shaky limb. And this is also a good way to avoid "confirmation bias" (convincing yourself that "the facts" fit with how you’ve already decided/want to proceed.)

By enlisting Sherlock Holmes' methods, you can raise your leadership–first by seeing critical below-the-surface forces and then illuminating positively mind-bending results.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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