Is 'Complacency' the New 'Human Error'?

Recently, we’ve noticed that while facilitating investigations and asking Why questions, the word “complacency” has become a common answer. Why did someone continue to perform a task without identifying all hazards and then mitigating those hazards? Complacency. Why wasn’t someone wearing the minimum required PPE? Complacency. This word keeps popping up as a cause in root cause analysis investigations. But how do you investigate complacency?

What Is Complacency?

First of all, let’s take a closer look at the definition of complacent. According to Merriam-Webster, complacency means:

  1. self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies and/or
  2. an instance of usually unaware or uninformed self-satisfaction.

If we translate this to the workforce, then employees are performing tasks while unaware of or comfortable with the hazards.

How Do We Become Complacent?

Overall, workplaces are becoming safer. Reliability is improving. Operations and production are becoming more efficient. All of this is because we have been continuously improving our work environment by learning from past events. It seems like employees become complacent when they perform their jobs over and over with little external input and when no recent incidents have occurred. That external input could be positive or negative. If we have deviated from a procedure, whether on purpose or by accident, and we don’t receive feedback that a deviation has occurred then that could be considered complacency. We keep doing what we are doing because that’s the way we have always done it, and it seems to be working. When our jobs are repetitive and routine, it can be easy to become comfortable and complacent.

Complacency is a generic cause similar to “procedure not followed” and “human error.” In fact, complacency is often given as the answer to the questions, “Why was the procedure not followed?” or “Why did the employee make a mistake?” We want to know more about why or how an employee was complacent. When I ask people, “What does complacency mean to you?” I tend to get very different answers. We need to get to specific answers to our Why questions, so we can brainstorm specific solutions to prevent complacency. Anyone can become complacent from frontline workers all the way up to chief executive officers, but how do we solve it? We must push the investigation past “complacency.”

How Do We Counteract Complacency?

What is the opposite of complacency? A few words that come to mind are self-awareness and engagement.

So let’s engage workers. Conducting audits, whether they are formal processes or informal spot checks, is a great way to find out if work is being performed the way an organization intends it to be performed. If we find out that it is not, then ask Why. Have the employees found a better way to do something? If so, then vet or test the new way and put it into practice. If not, then educate the employee on the correct way to perform the task. Either way, we engage employees in their tasks.

Continuous process improvement is a valuable way to involve employees in their own work. The employees performing the tasks are in an ideal position to suggest improvement opportunities. It may be hard to become complacent if you are continually looking for ways to improve what you are doing. This includes engaging workers in root cause analysis investigations. If we think that workers are becoming complacent, then involve them in developing solutions.

Using a tool like Cause Mapping® root cause analysis can help give you the framework to dig past generic answers like complacency and dig deeper during your investigations. Cause Mapping root cause analysis starts by defining the problem and documenting how the incident impacted your organization’s goals. Step two is to conduct the analysis by asking Why questions. Understanding why or how the worker was complacent is key to building an effective Cause Map™ diagram. Step three is to document solutions that will reduce the likelihood of a similar problem or incident from happening again.

Have you encountered complacency during a root cause analysis investigation? We would love to hear about your experience and your possible solutions to counteract it. Feel free to comment below or email us at A Cause Mapping Workshop To Facilitate Better Investigations

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