The team I led knew the difference between a learning culture and their responsibility to avoid ‘failure demand[i].’ Understanding how to differentiate and embed these 2 concepts should be informed by the purpose of your organisation.
For this blog I am taking the most stripped- back definition of purpose, that being the fundamental reason for which the organisation exists – regardless of any wider contribution to society.
The core purpose of hotels is to provide a safe place for travellers to sleep. The death of 2 men in December 2017 in the Cameron House Hotel fire was the most extreme outcome of failure to understand the core purpose of the hotel business and ensure the right systems were in place to deliver this – and ensure these are known and understood by all the staff[ii]. All the fancy furnishings, the marketing strategy and all other ‘attention to customer satisfaction’ went up in a cloud of smoke.
The core purpose of the organisation I led was to reduce loneliness and social isolation. When you work with the public and have multiple complex interactions with other services, communities, and organisations throughout the delivery of services then, despite planning, quality systems and applied risk management there are many moving parts and sometimes things take unexpected twists and turns. Ensuring your team is ‘psychologically safe’ to identify and report ‘near misses or close calls’ or to contribute their ideas on how to do things better is incredibly important. It is the only route to excellence. Creating a culture of psychological safety enables a positive safety climate and protects staff, customers and the organisation but also allows for innovation within agreed risk tolerance parameters. Our mantra was ‘Plan, Do, Review, Revise’. We kept an active log of all ‘Near Misses’ and explored together what had happened and how to avoid THE SAME issue in future. The learning was then embedded in the policies, processes, equipment, communication briefings and any other way relevant to the seriousness of the potential harm.
This differs from ‘failure demand’ when that failure, to meet the needs of a customer, is because the member of staff did not apply the learning agreed by the team and the impact on the customer fell far short of the purpose of the organisation. When this happens or comes to light, huge amounts of resources are then spent trying to remedy the arising needs that came from not getting it right first time. Forgetting to collect an older person who was waiting anxiously to join in with an activity was arguably worse than if they had never been offered the service in the first place. Trust lost and feelings of loneliness compounded. I agree that the ‘person who doesn’t make a mistake, doesn’t make anything’ but staff need to be supported to have the time, training and resources to get the core bits right.
There is an overlap with Health and Safety, but I would argue that it goes much deeper. It requires us to empathise with the customer and to feel a responsibility on a more compassionate level. I have viewed the CCTV footage of the events that led to the fire many times. There were two porters. One watched while the other heaps hot embers into a plastic bag. If they had been helped to understand the importance of the role they played in the hotel, as custodians of the safety of their sleeping guests, would this have altered their actions? I believe it would.
Big business is being encouraged to embrace the ‘power of purpose’ with a new non-profit[iii] called the Purposeful Company funded by the Bank of England. It all sounds a bit hollow to me, claiming they will ‘use evidence to define the policies that enable purpose’ but I wish them well.
If you would like to follow a much simpler, proactive and effective path to harnessing the purpose of your organisation I would be very happy to help you in this.
[i] Failure Demand | John Seddon | Vanguard Consulting (vanguard-method.net)
[ii] Cameron House: Fire caused by ash left in cupboard - BBC News