“The Grenfell fire is one of those events that causes all of us to think about coherence, humanity, leadership and an appetite for real change. I am very grateful to my Associate Jim McAuslan for writing this blog.” – Simon Barrow
The roots of this disaster go far deeper and spread far wider.
Charles Haddon Cave’s investigation into the loss in 2006 of RAF Nimrod XV230 was a classic that pointed the way. After nearly two years of research he found that the Nimrod Safety Case process was “fatally undermined by a general malaise” – a widespread assumption by those involved that the Nimrod was ‘safe anyway’ because it had successfully flown for 30 years, and the task of drawing up the Safety Case became a ‘tick box’ exercise.
Haddon-Cave highlighted two key contributors. First, the risks that arise from the ‘normalisation of deviation’ – the acceptance of a poor practice to the extent that it becomes the norm and in turn leads to even worse practices. Secondly he stressed the ‘privilege of responsibility’ – the duty of each individual, irrespective of status or rank, to embrace the duty bestowed upon them to do the right thing whatever it might mean for them personally.
Haddon-Cave’s words were challenging enough in 2008; it’s tougher today. Here are three examples:
1. Austerity in the public sector and shareholder demands in the corporate world are increasing. Don’t deny it, behaviour is being corrupted all the way down the management chain.
2. Outsourcing might save money, but its convoluted lines of accountability won’t save your reputation (or political career) when things go wrong; as we saw recently at BA and as no doubt certain Cabinet members now fear.
3. And the historic counter balance of trade union representation is at a historic low with workplace representatives too often seen as a nuisance rather than an early warning system.
Realistically, that environment is not going to easily change but those in power need to wake up; if they didn’t hear it in the Brexit vote, or the Trump election, or the hung parliament or the anger on the steps of Kensington Town Hall then they deserve to fail.
What could they do? Well, better ways of giving more transparency, clarifying accountability and fostering better workplace cultures would help. For example:
1. New emphasis on the measurement of the culture of an organisation just as leaders of employer brand focused organisations already do. That is in the interests of the public, the shareholders (and insurance companies). Surveys yes; but also qualitative research, face to face and in private, offering the opportunity for people to speak their minds on what they expect from a decent and caring employer and whether ‘safety is really taken seriously around here”.
2. Extending the duty of Directors to publish this in annual reports together with specific concerns that have been raised by staff, how these were considered and by whom and what action followed
3. Finding new ways in a social-media world for the public to report concerns and resourcing the Health and Safety Executive to investigate
4. National awards for those who have raised concerns or otherwise promoted safety – I don’t deny the acknowledgement of actors in the Honours List; but what about a similar exercise on the anniversary of Grenfell Tower?
Ultimately it beholds each one of us to embrace the privilege of responsibility in whatever organisation we serve. We saw how brave the Grenfell Tower firefighters were in embracing their responsibility and we should each ask ourselves; if I showed a fraction of that courage I might prevent something similar happening in the first place.