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The Trouble With Zero

Updated: Oct 15


The Trouble With Zero

Over the years I have heard many voice their concerns about using zero as a goal or target. This voice seems loudest in the safety field.


In a recent article from Energy Safety Canada, The National Safety Association’s for Canada’s Oil and Gas Industry, Murray Elliott (CEO) outlines their move away from using zero harm messaging.


In this article he writes,


“Zero harm concepts are a mindset in which all accidents and injuries are avoidable. These are often referred to as target zero, mission zero, beyond zero, or similar, with a common belief: if you’re not aiming for zero, you’re not making your best effort. At what point does striving to reach an improbable goal become more important than what’s actually happening?”

He further writes:


“Zero harm is a mindset in which all accidents and injuries are avoidable. The next step in the evolution of safety is to shift our view and create capacity in a system so that when humans make mistakes — and they will— the system can accommodate them.”

For Elliott, safety is foremost about reducing risk and and increasing worker engagement: the foundation for continuous improvement.



While I don’t disagree that safety is about risk and that continuous improvement involving workers is important I want to discuss the movement away from zero harm messaging.


Lessons from Quality


When quality started to gain traction the focus was on zero defects which created similar challenges to what we are experiencing with safety. Zero defects was the slogan and eliminating defects was the modus operandi.


Was the focus on zero defects misguided?


The problem was not so much with zero defects as a goal but rather it being the terminal or end goal. Zero defects was an instrumental goal towards achieving something better. What it did expose was that Inspections and audits were insufficient to drive down defects or improve quality. You can't inspect quality into your process!


As a result organizations looked upstream to improving process capabilities specifically by reducing variation (a source of uncertainty and risk). The better the capabilities the better the output and the lower the defects. This moved management’s attention away from zero defects to contending with process variation with six sigma as the gold standard. Striving towards six sigma was now the modus operandi. However, this too was an instrumental goal and not the end goal.


Contending with uncertainty at all levels of the organization would become the next challenge as part of Total Quality Management (TQM). The goal had changed from zero defects, to six-sigma, to delighting customers (the outcome of quality). To achieve this a holistic approach would be needed following these 8 principles (some of these are not very different from what Elliott is suggesting):


  1. Customer focused

  2. Total employee involvement

  3. Process centred

  4. Integrated system

  5. Strategic and systematic approach

  6. Continual improvement

  7. Fact-based decision making

  8. Communications


Is striving towards zero defects still important? Yes.

Is striving towards six sigma capabilities still important? Yes.


However, what is also important is delighting customers — the actual test of quality and this required a holistic and integrated approach. Something that Safety is also noticing.


What quality learned was striving towards instrumental goals (continuous improvement) was the secret sauce by which quality would be improved. The targets as important as there were are not the end but the way to the end — something that would never be fully reached but worthwhile nevertheless. Something that Safety is also realizing.


Application for Safety


In many ways, what Elliott along with others in the safety field have written aligns with the trajectory that quality followed.


Is striving towards zero incidents important? Yes.


But this is not the end goal.


In the same way as quality, we need to look beyond and behind the numbers at sources of uncertainty and improve our capabilities to contend with them.


Process safety management, functional safety, and occupational safety are becoming more risk-based and performance oriented. Perhaps, six-sigma process capabilities may not be possible but striving towards reduced variation (i.e. reduced uncertainty) is an important goal for safety as it is for quality. Elliott, is right on the nose with this.


Elliott says that “Safety should not be about the number of incidents, but about outcomes and what we can learn from them.”


I would argue that safety is still about the number of incidents but not only that. The goal should not be only about learning either. Safety must have a qualitative effect on actual safety in the workplace and zero harm while problematic for some is the best measure we have.


What some are suggesting is something similar to TQM for safety – Total Safety Management (TSM). TSM could provide a holistic approach that might bring together both behaviors (Safety 1) and systems (Safety 2) to transform our approaches from safety management to actually managing safety. The outcome would be a safe environment for our workers, communities, and the environment. Who knows, this might delight as well.


Is this realistic? Perhaps not.


Is it worthwhile to strive for? Absolutely.


That is worth restating. It is in striving towards ambitious targets that creates the motivation and the capabilities to achieve something better. That was and is true for quality and will also be true for safety.


In the End


If we move away from zero harm as some are suggesting we may end up making similar mistakes as some have made with quality.


If you make process capability maturity (i.e. six-sigma) your goal that is what you will get. You will make products that are defect free but may not delight the customer (making the wrong product the right way). That doesn't mean you don't have it as a goal. It means it's not your only goal.


In the same way, if Safety makes continuous improvement or work engagement its goal you will get just that. You will may end up with change for the sake of change and not experience the safety you need. You still need to have other goals.


And that's the point. If zero harm is not your goal than you will not achieve it.


You can hope for the best. You might be lucky. But that is not a strategy for risk.


Is striving towards Zero Harm misguided? I think moving away from it is.


What do you think?



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