We like a good fire fight, but how can we learn to improve longer term?

Greg Morse reflects on the problem of never having time to reflect

When I became what the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) then called its Learning from Accidents Programme Leader, in 2010, there seemed to be little understanding in the industry of corporate knowledge and the need to remember the lessons of the past. The benefits of having a knowledgeable workforce had been recognised by the economist and philosopher Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations as far back as 1776, the idea then being developed in the 1960s by two American economists, Theodore Schultz (1961) and Gary Becker (1964). By the new millennium, the European Commission, in its Memorandum of Lifelong Learning (2000), was expounding the need to strive for a ‘continuum’ of workforce learning ‘with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence’, in order to retain a competitive edge and promote economic development.

As leading business consultant Annie Brooking also noted, companies “rely on long-standing employees to act as their ‘corporate memory’, but when these people leave, links to the past are permanently severed’. However, 12 years ago, there was a large contingent in rail who ‘knew all this’. They had enjoyed long careers and had not yet realised that they didn’t have all that many years to go before retirement. Thankfully, another contingent sensed the dangers, and it was down to them that my RSSB role came about.

As a result, some readers may have seen me speaking at conferences or read some of the words I’ve written in other places. The messages behind most of them – aside from the need to remember lessons hard won in the past – involve the need to keep reporting incidents and keep sharing information. Where reporting is concerned, on the railway, most incidents are input to the Safety Management Information System (SMIS), a huge database that allows RSSB to report on risk and safety performance.

Freud once pointed out that human beings were good at receiving data and then processing it. In other words, we can turn data into something tangible that can be acted upon. When the rail industry was learning to find out about learning, I was sent to Wylfa nuclear power station on the Isle of Anglesey. Greg Evans, the station director at the time and a very engaging, inspiring speaker, pointed out that Freud had missed a bit. He said that we seldom make time to reflect – we are always processing away, like there’s no tomorrow. In short, we’re forever firefighting.

Of course, firefighting can achieve a great deal. On a daily basis, signallers find workarounds when there are problems on the line to minimise delay, help get people home or, more recently during the Covid crisis, help get key staff and goods to where they are needed, when they need to be there. Infrastructure staff go the extra mile to make sure lines reopen quickly, as without those lines there is no railway. Solving problems like this feels good – we had a problem; we sorted it; the problem is gone. We applaud those who can think on their feet and promote them to Olympian heights. We berate those who cannot – famously, Margaret Thatcher, when visiting the old British Rail Woking Staff College in 1969, saw a set of pre-prepared questions written on a blackboard in readiness and lambasted her hosts because ‘you people can’t think on your feet.’ And yet...

And yet safety and operational efficiency is not only about firefighting; it’s also about continuous improvement. Sometimes, a firefighting solution looks only at the short term. But what’s right for today, even for tomorrow, might not be right for next year – and if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that you can’t bank on the world always being the same. There are plenty of articles on the internet about continuous improvement, but in brief it boils down to planning a small change, monitoring it to check it’s working as intended and then implementing it on a larger scale if required. This way, change can be adapted to altering circumstances more readily. It can engage staff and improve efficiency without leaving some people standing on the platform as the train leaves without them. After all, who knows what those people might know that you might need soon, if not right now?

Just a thought.

About the author:

Dr Morse is a Member of the Chartered Institution of Railway Operators and is RSSB’s Operational Feedback Lead. He is also a co-opted member of the IOSH Railway Group. The views expressed in this article are his own. His book on Clapham, its context and lessons, should be published later this year.


Disclaimer: The information and opinions expressed on this webpage are those of the author at the time of writing and not necessarily those of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).