Whack the Whac-A-Mole Safety Approach

Capt. Terry Ogg published a thoughtful article on safety culture and training on Linkedin. The title is “Why it’s time to deep-six our current safety culture,” but within the article he provides an even better meme: The Whac-a-Mole Safety Game.

The meme explains the tendency to simply hit at every possible human error that occurs and to paper it over with new procedures. Capt. Ogg, instead, advocates the cognitive approach. He is speaking about training highly functioning humans who have a desire to stay alive and can figure out how to do that regardless of the situation they find themselves in. To me that is the classic definition of a mariner: A human who goes away on ships and through training, experience and intelligence manages to deal with the natural unpredictability and complexity of the seas and make it back in one piece, and does this time and time again.

If I understand Captain Ogg correctly, he argues that filling out a form prior to a certain ship operation evolution is not going to make a better mariner; it simply makes a person who knows how to fill out a form. As a matter of fact, a form can provide a false sense of security.

After filling out a form a person will say, “Yes, I have checked all these things and therefore I should be OK, and I can now passively proceed with whatever I was supposed to do.”

Then when a new mole pops its head up, the person who has filled out the form will say, “Whaaat! I did not plan for that!”

In many ways insecurity is a great way to prevent death. This is illustrated by the fact that in the vast majority of cases a departing vessel is at fault in a collision rather than an arriving vessel. In retrospect, that even makes sense. The mariners leaving port are nursing hangovers, have not had regular sleep, are still consumed with last minute shore-based concerns or paperwork (think Capt. Hazelwood and Exxon Valdez; he was in his cabin doing paperwork), and are looking forward to the mental relief of the open ocean. Meanwhile, the arriving crew generally had more regular sleep, are on their best game looking out the bridge windows at something they are not terribly familiar with, and are planning for the unknown.

So how do we train mariners?

First of all, through story telling. Any mariner who is familiar with the above story will now have a little angel (mermaid?) on their shoulder that makes some noise when they leave port. “Hi, sailor, it is back to sea, it feels good, doesn’t it? But let’s pay attention, since this is where we tend to screw up.”

It is frustrating to realize that story telling has started dying in the traditional training regime. Most of all because it is being replaced by the Whac-a-Mole approach, but also because of technology.

While many technologies have lightened the load and complexity of ship operation, it is starting to appear that these technologies are also dumbing down the people who operate the ships. This is not an indictment of the intelligence of the world’s mariners, but rather an indictment of the learning environment we are providing with all these new technologies. Instead of processing stories by more experienced mariners during the traditional interminable periods of boredom during ship operations, new technologies have resulted in trainingless settings such as single watch standing and in-cabin entertainment.

As a whole, it appears that, today, the operational environment provides fewer training circumstances (operational surprises with the need to arrive at effective and non-standard decisions) than in older less perfect days. However, once things start to go wrong, it appears that today’s operational failures are not related to a lack of procedures, but rather to an inability to effectively deal with rapidly developing unusual operational circumstances.

In this new operational environment, it pays to evaluate what works and what does not. What we do know is that ever more procedures do not make better mariners. What makes better mariners is training to make rapid and effective decisions (those who have been trained to OODA loop).

Regardless of the amount of training that is being provided, the most effective training takes place in near miss failures. That means that we learn from the things that almost killed us and the more effective we are at providing such settings, the more we learn. However, near miss training also means that “miss” situations are very close and could make training ineffective due to the loss of the student.

As such, really good training approaches position trainees in a setting where near misses are common, recognized, exercised, and discussed and misses will not kill the student. Moreover, the near misses need to teach a larger lesson that can be applied across the board. Therefore parachute jumping training is fun, but it does not teach many larger lessons, because it only teaches a procedure and does not provide much time for improvisation when things go wrong. On the other hand, losing the rig of a small sailboat due to your own inexperience and nursing the boat home on relatively safe waters provides ample time and opportunity for learning, experimentation and improvisation. Both provide a rush, but the latter provides a rush and also lessons that can be reapplied in other situations.

That brings me to a list of favorite training settings that I have encountered over the years. These are the training programs that provide excellent bang for their buck and, combined, will create better mariners (even though some examples are not even maritime).

  1. 1.  Street Survival
  2. 2.  Mass Maritime QI training
  3. 3.  Bridge simulators
  4. 4.  Small craft design and construction
  5. 5.  Sail training

And once you create effective mariners (and indulge me by allowing me to define Mariners as people who understand, and have experienced, what it feels like to get into trouble on the water), you have created people who can do pretty much any job. Some of the above programs are linked to blogs where I have discussed them. In the future, I plan to fill in the blanks on the others.

Regardless, all these programs have something that forms and procedures cannot provide. They all have an element of surprise. I would bet that the vast majority of animals only learn through the element of surprise, as long as they live through the surprise and get to tell the story.