Because We're Human, That's Why
Sep 16, 2021

We think of risk management - in these pages and elsewhere - as a type of hard science. We deal in statistics, often abstruse analytics, complex legal issues, such as developing new parametric policies and optimization programs for supply chain risks. We know all about the risk issues involved with large pieces of equipment and new industrial processes, but our riskiest assets always have been and will remain people, our fellow Homo sapiens. This is why we strongly recommend that our risk brethren check out a new webinar published by The National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine.

The Resilience of Ritual offers a look at what COVID has done to the rituals we have all lived by for, lo, these many years. Even the simplest rituals, such as shaking hands, have been quickly relegated to the dustbins of history. The author, Cristine Legare, a psychologist and director of the Center for Applied Cognitive Science (CACS) at the University of Texas at Austin, points out rituals are "essential to meeting our physical, social, and psychological needs - particularly in the face of adversity." Need we point out that resilience, especially in terms of personnel effectiveness, is a major mitigating factor for any number of performance-based risks?

Consider this from a summary of the webinar: "all cultures have rituals to mark critical rites of passage and life events, such as birth, childhood, adolescence, puberty, marriage, work-related rituals, childbirth, and death. These rituals serve important purposes, such as initiating a new human into a family or a community, or helping an adult transition to a new form of identity, such as parenthood." Now, do companies have cultures? You bet they do, and there are good reasons to think that those with the strongest, most resilient cultures will emerge from the COVID of our discontent even more successful and better positioned to thrive.

Our point is that we are all developing new cultural solutions and their embedded rituals, such as a new respect for video conference technique and etiquette or novel ways of onboarding new hires for remote work, which enable these solutions, which make them function in our organizations. The handshake existed because it filled a very real need as part of a person-to-person interaction. What has your organization adopted to replace the handshake? A face-to-face meeting will feel very incomplete and just plain odd without a new ritual which serves that function.

Risk management needs to take an active and informed role in helping each organization develop the new cultural rituals we all need to work together smoothly and with a feeling of personal satisfaction despite COVID-spawned disruptions and workarounds. Those companies that don't may wonder why they are hemorrhaging key employees, why their organization feels more brittle than resilient now.

Yes, risk management has a soft side, "soft" in the sense that we are dealing with hearts and minds, not just numbers and machines. This excellent webinar delves into how we make new rituals and how they help us define our response to threats like COVID and its offshoots. It also offers some ideas about what new rituals will likely survive well after COVID becomes a footnote. Ritual and culture are too important to be left to happen without guidance and recognition. Stop and think for a moment how many key risk principles are embedded in your culture. How many safety procedures, for example, have become little rituals built into our daily activities? Knowing how to weave the daily rituals of resilience into everything you do is at least as important as that new cat bond you're working on.

The novelist Pat Conroy reminds us of this simple truth: "The human soul can always use a new tradition. Sometimes we require them."

 

Famous in Failure Circles

A friend many long years ago was a leading failure engineer for a major aerospace manufacturer. When a new satellite went pfffttt! in orbit, Frank and his team were tasked with figuring out why. As he modestly put it, he was fairly famous in failures. We recalled that boisterous, hard-drinking Texan fondly in reading an article in the Washington Post about how researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a think tank for the private energy sector, use an array of pulleys, slings, and heavy machinery to drop hefty wooden beams across electrical transmission lines and commit other grid-related mayhem to figure out exactly how and why electrical transmission components fail and what to do about that.

The point isn't to build completely bulletproof systems, which would be fabulously expensive,* but to build a grid with eminently predictable, and thus quickly repairable, failure points. "You design structures that are self-sacrificing," said Andrew Phillips, vice president of transmission and distribution infrastructure at EPRI. "They fail, but they fail in a place you want them to fail."

The article is fascinating in its own right, but we also suggest reading it for the insight it offers into how to engineer failure. The principles that EPRI follows are eminently applicable across a wide array of risk-related disciplines. Do you try to banish failure, the expensive/impossible option, or do you try to make it more predictable and thus easier and quicker to remedy? Is failure engineering part of your remediation analytics and plan? Should it be?

Consider what my Swedish grandfather explained to me when I was a pup: there are two ways to be successful in life. Either be incredibly lucky and never make a mistake, or develop the ability to heal quickly.

*When the original Bay Area Rapid Transit system was designed for the San Francisco Bay Area, all of the power and control cables were put underground to make them more rugged in earthquake country. Almost worked. The local gophers found the neoprene insulation delicious, and soon trains were screeching to a halt in random locations adjacent to fricasseed gophers. Back to the drawing board.


 
Was this failure predictable? Do we have replacements on hand?
Are our crews trained in a quick and simple way to fix this?
 

 

Quick Take 1:
Neither Wishful Thinking Nor Outright Purchase

In 1962, John F. Kennedy said, "Our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security." Two weeks ago, an article on workerscompensation.com began: "Despite ergonomic advances, better safety efforts and automation to relieve some of the physical stress on workers, the frequency of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) has not decreased in recent years." Meanwhile, a well-known fast-food chain is in the process of rebuilding their local restaurant from the ground up here in God's backyard. Yes, it will look better, but the real investment is inside. It will require half the number of employees to operate it. Is there a thread here?

We've talked about aspects of this issue many times, but this article in workerscompensation.com brings the latest thinking together in one very convenient place and discusses various possible ways an employer might minimize their exposure to MSDs going forward. The key issue, in our view, is simple - hire right. We have worked in various aspects of disability insurance going back to 1976 and, time and again, the biggest driver of both occ and non-occ disability has been poor hiring and retention practices by the employer.

Yes, the U.S. workforce is aging. So what? Some people allow the years to grind them down, others do not. Some fail to take care of themselves, while others mind their weight, go out and walk their dogs, hit the gym regularly, and so forth.* Which ones work for you? The alternative solution to having fit employees is plain - use more robots, more AI. The folks rebuilding their restaurant down the road have made their choice.

Our title comes from Joseph Pilates - yes, that Pilates. The full sentence deserves to be read carefully: "Physical fitness can neither be acquired by wishful thinking nor by outright purchase."

*Your faithful, well-seasoned correspondent maintains the same vitals as a college athlete. It's not easy, but anyone can do it, absent serious comorbidities. Hint: doing "walkies" with a greyhound helps.


 
Incredibly effective anti-aging therapy.
 

 

Quick Take 2:
We Must Be Doing Something Right

As we were cleaning up after Hurricane Ida (literally), this headline popped up in USA Today: "Weather disasters are getting worse worldwide, report says. But the good news is they aren't as deadly." Not great headline writing, but the article points out something that all of us in risk management should take seriously. Even though the number of weather-related disasters is now five times what it was a few decades ago, "Disasters are less deadly than they used to be, the report said. Specifically, in the 1970s and 1980s, they killed an average of about 170 people a day worldwide. In the 2010s, that dropped to about 40 per day."

Some serious part of that reduction in disaster lethality is on us, folks. Better risk control, better designs for facilities and infrastructure generally, better systems and training - all those things we do every day to reduce and mitigate risk are an important part of that much reduced level of fatalities. True, the financial costs of these disasters have been going up, due in part to the use of marginal lands to accommodate growing populations, but the cost in lives is very much down, especially in the U.S. Hurricane Ida was a good example. The new levees in New Orleans held and Katrina didn't happen again. The advanced tornado and flash flood warnings here in the Northeast helped keep deaths to a minimum, even as the New York subways turned into water park thrill rides.

Doing risk management day-in, day-out can seem thankless sometimes, and most of our victories are the bad things that don't happen, often all but invisible to anyone but us. But this new study by the UN's World Meteorological Organization shows how large an impact we're actually having. At a time when weather is going crazy on a regular basis, we are keeping people safe, making certain that parents get home to their families, that infrastructure continues to work for everyone. Pretty good job, that.


 
What we do every day.
 

 

Say It Isn't So...

The future just isn't what it used to be.* We were reminded of this by a recent issue of McKinsey for Kids titled "I Robot? What technology shifts mean for tomorrow's jobs." The article looks at potential new types of occupations, which today's kids might be training for, whether we know it or not. Here's one that caught our attention:

      

Garbage Designer: If you like to creatively reuse things other people might throw out, this could be for you. Garbage designers might turn manufacturing leftovers into new materials or find ways to minimize waste when making new products like shoes.

 
Yeah - we're going to need that, no doubt. Let's hope Johnny and Suzie think that sounds really cool as they get their BAs in Garbage Tech.
br /> *Thank you, Yogi Berra!

 

Famous in Failure Circles

The future just isn't what it used to be.* We were reminded of this by a recent issue of McKinsey for Kids titled "I Robot? What technology shifts mean for tomorrow's jobs." The article looks at potential new types of occupations, which today's kids might be training for, whether we know it or not. Here's one that caught our attention:

      

Garbage Designer: If you like to creatively reuse things other people might throw out, this could be for you. Garbage designers might turn manufacturing leftovers into new materials or find ways to minimize waste when making new products like shoes.

 
Yeah - we're going to need that, no doubt. Let's hope Johnny and Suzie think that sounds really cool as they get their BAs in Garbage Tech.
br /> *Thank you, Yogi Berra!

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