Rep. Murtha’s Contribution to the Checklist and System Safety

11 02 2010

This was a headline earlier this week.  Read the first two paragraphs.

Normally I’d just glaze over the details of Rep. Murtha’s passing and accept the insinuation that the operating room mishaps like this are not the norm.  But I just finished reading The Checklist Manifesto by Dr. Atul Gawande, and all of a sudden the term ‘complications’ means so much more.

A routine procedure like the laparoscopy Rep. Murtha was having is fallible because it is routine, and because the task at hand is so minimally-invasive and trite compared to, say, an emergency lobotomy.  It’s simple.  Or, at least, straightforward enough to not give surgeons stage fright in the operating room.  So why did this happen?

When we say that there were complications, we admit that the problem is one of complexity.  Complexity refers not only to there being many players, which is true – the proper tools, personnel, and preparation need to be in place – but also to the way they must interact for there to be a reliably successful outcome.  With people, this interaction is teamwork and the ability to manage all available resources cohesively and quickly.

A startling example Gawande gives of this is that one item on the medical checklists being used in many institutions around the world makes sure – yes, makes sure – that everybody in the operating room knows everybody else’s names.  Introductions.  Apparently, formalities like this were routinely ignored until something happened, at which communication rose to little more than stumbling commands to nameless faces.

James Reason’s 1997 M.T.R.O.O.A. reminds us to ask not why the failure of the surgeon who “hit his intestines” happened, but how it failed to be corrected, especially when we already know that human nature will make good on any opportunity to err under pressure to succeed with only one chance, regardless of skill, know-how, or determination.  It happens that checklists allow an “activation phenomenon” to occur when each doctor, nurse, anesthesiologist, or resident is allowed to contribute.  People will begin to feel valuable and important to the cause (the patient on the operating table) and will be more inclined to speak up if they see something wrong.  If sharp-end operators are going into the workplace with the mid-set that they are completely independent and fully capable of performing alone, then they are more ignorant to the existence of critical dependencies in the medical system than I originally thought.

Perhaps the hairy eyeball for things like checklists and communications comes from the fact that power, or at least the feeling of it, can be lost.  Which is true, granted.  The decentralization of authority is featured by Reason when he describes a “flexible culture” as a requirement for an organizational safety culture.  When emergencies arise, the hierarchy needs to collapse and front-line workers need to be autonomous and trusted to handle the situation promptly.  Seeking approval for quick corrective action wastes valuable time and can have dire consequences.  Gawande discusses this at length when he talks about the federal government and the Hurricane Katrina fiasco.

Also, many industries and professions become obsessed with improving individual components or addressing specific concerns to such a point that they can’t see the forest for the trees; they can’t see latent, systemic threats.  Or worse, they can, but they’ve got a bureaucratic wedgie big enough to keep them from being able to do anything about it in any effective sense.  An army of external distractions and chaotic variances has been encroaching on the safe and simple practices people and organizations have learned to take for granted.  And that’s why we can’t sweat the stupid stuff any longer.

How the nick on Rep. Murtha’s intestines failed to be corrected is probably a result of too little being done too late.  Reactive safety procedures are effective only in pacifying the devil and angel team on our shoulder who scream together, “Well, we tried!”.  When the patient is gushing blood is not the time to start thinking about what to do.  This is where Gawande makes hiscase for the checklist as a tool that can “instill a discipline of higher performance” consistent with predicting failure and preparing for the worst.  Had the surgeon preempted a slip of his hand (which I understand is a common surgical occurrence) with a plan for coordination and by briefing his staff, then we would begin to see the way each player acts as part of a collaborative unit instead of as just a collection of players.

“Man is fallible, but maybe men are less so” says Dr. G.

This is all to say that we can do with less professional arrogance (to be blunt) and fewer who believe that “our jobs are too complicated to reduce to a checklist”.  Again, Gawande says of checklists: “They are quick and simple tools aimed to buttress the skills of expert professionals” not to belittle or replace them.

I have a grand sum of zero experience with medicine, but yet, this post was fairly easy for me to think about.  I just pretended that everything had to do with aviation.

It appears that like gall-bladder surgery, flying an airplane is simple, too.  The acting-as-a-crew part, or the focusing-in-an-emergency part is what’s difficult.  That’s why the first item on the emergency checklist for an engine failure in any single-engine aircraft is stupid: FLY THE AIRPLANE.

Rest in peace, Representative Murtha.



Assuring safety with “the other” SMS

5 02 2010

I’m currently reading a relatively recent advisory circular from the FAA, AC120-92 [PDF], “Introduction to Safety Management Systems for Air Operators”.  It’s for a research project, but I have no shame in admitting that I’d probably be browsing through it even if I didn’t have a grade pushing me along.

A safety management system is the regulatory way of saying to airlines, “Look – your guys’ operations have become so complex and diverse that we’re going to grant airline management some autonomy in the safety department.  Using this framework [plunks a 40-page document on the desk] we want you to establish a safety program that can adapt and evolve with time.  Report to us.  Due soon.  Thanks.”  That’s the quick and dirty of it.

James Reason is just a small mouse in a big world of Swiss Cheese models.

Nick Sabatini, the former associate administrator for aviation safety for the FAA, spoke at IASS (International Aviation Safety Seminar – I know…) in Beijing last fall.  He explained SMS in more eloquent terms as an “evolution of safety” that is “culture-driven, highly measurable, and analytical”

Which is true.  The culture-driven part, especially, as it signals a shift in focus away from a sheltered Orwellian workplace that some airlines have unfortunately adopted to a more natural and approachable environment.  A culture comes to be from common beliefs and values (towards safety, say) that develop organically and authentically.  From that, behavioral norms begin to emerge to the point where behavior that is universally embraced is also behavior universally practiced.  But it’s a gradual process.  (See James Reason’s seminal “Managing the Risks of Organizational Accidents” p. 192 for more.  He made the Swiss Cheese model.)

So an SMS is constructed around four central ideas: safety policy (the commitment from management); safety risk management (identification, analysis, and control of hazards); safety assurance (monitor of effectiveness); and safety promotion (culture).  What caught my attention was something on page seventeen of the AC about safety assurance and how to get the information for proper decisionmaking:

The highlighting is mine and the yellow quote bubble shows that I left a note in the margin.  My note has to do with the fact that, by this definition, safety assurance is still relatively unchanged.  The very safety intelligence that drives the whole SMS can not be fenced in by the bureaucracy and regimen that is consistent with pre-SMS safety philosophy if the whole project hinges on a culture that is dynamic and constantly evolving.

Here, safety assurance essentially takes place in an echo chamber where decision-makers are exposed only to the information the system is designed to share.  Top-down analysis and conclusions may fail to recognize more systemic, yet casual and seldom-reported impediments to safety.  Employee reporting systems are, indeed, effective in collecting information, but they always have and always will amount to a broad channel that feeds from single employees to many in management.  With just the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) and other structured interactions, valuable insight from people at the sharp-end of the airplane are at risk of being stovepiped into obscurity.

For safety to truly be generative, people with information should not be bound by formal reporting systems.  Greater, broader platforms of communication can elicit productive discussions about a hazard and even shed light on new or potential threats.

This is where a discussion about Enterprise 2.0 and emergent media (that is, media that produces emergent phenomenon) kicks off.  But I’d like to hear your reactions about what I’ve said so far.  Leave comments!