Reduce complication, not complexity

Posted by
Lance Roux
on Nov 12, 2015

The world that we live in is immersed in complexity. This has been the topic of numerous books, blog posts, and discussion that reach far beyond any relevant reference point of time. As safety leaders, we need to be able to distinguish complexity from complication. There’s certainly a connection, and it goes beyond simple alliteration, and the difference between them is stark.

Complexity can be recognized in an adaptive system by its presence or absence. For example, when an aspect of an adaptive system is present, the system will function (often times with stability). However, when the same aspect is absent from the system, the system will fail to work properly.

An example of this is would be a safety management system that lacks a necessary process such as incident investigation. One of the requirements of any management system is the ability to learn from organizational incidents. Without the inclusion of the incident investigation process, the system fails to achieve its goal.

Complication however, is not a necessary property of an adaptive system. Referring to the natural world around us provides us with ample instances of the simplicity of processes. Life processes are evident with a bit of examination, and demonstrate the ability of living creatures to adapt simply.

“Complicated worlds are reducible, whereas complex ones are not.”

             - Miller & Page (2007, p. 9)

Safety leaders can borrow these lessons when it comes to application of the hierarchy of controls and the design of human interfaces in safety management systems.

Reducing Complication

When designing a control for the safety management system (e.g. forms/records/data), the consideration of human factors should be of a primary concern. Cost is always a factor, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to apply another administrative control. In the context of the hierarchy of controls, the complication associated with those controls increases from top to bottom. In other words, it is a whole lot less complicated to implement an engineered control (especially at the sharp end) than it is to add another administrative control (procedure, work instruction, etc.).

Safety leaders can train, instruct, ensure competence for safety tasks, and ask personnel to be mindful of what they’re doing. However, at some point the administrative demands eat into a person’s ability to maintain a situational awareness or remember the number of steps in an overly-complicated procedure. The best method to prevent complication is ensuring those workers at the sharp end have a voice in the development of those procedures.

Recognizing Complexity

Understand that complexity is a normal attribute of an adaptive system – is it neither good nor bad. A complex system requires a different set of skills, knowledge, and thinking than a simple system because of its interrelatedness. A system by definition is not linear, so traditional forms of analysis are not helpful.

Thinking of safety in terms of and emergent property of a well-designed system is key. If the system is not consistently realizing the goals and objectives that are established, structure and design should be one of the first places you look. In order for leaders to ensure our co-workers remain safe at the sharp end, important to recognize that the systems we have in place should remain complex without being complicated.

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Miller, J.H., & Page, S.E. (2007). Complex Adaptive Systems: An introduction to computational models of social life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Click to edit your new post...

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