Media waiting for ‘single cause’ for Croydon tram tragedy… They’ll wait. And wait…

A tram crashed in Croydon south of London on the morning of November 9 when it failed to negotiate a bend and left the track, tragically resulting in the loss of seven people’s lives.

A bulletin on a BBC news programme this morning, a day after the incident, caught my attention.  It said that a ‘single cause for the tragedy was yet to be identified’ and focused coverage on the driver who they reported ‘may have fallen asleep or blacked out’.  Like references to ‘pilot error’ all media covering transport crashes want to rush to the conclusion that it was the ‘nut behind the wheel’.

On the strength of this, I’m tempted to offer a ‘101’ course on incident causcheeseation to reporters.  I’d probably start by rolling-out the tried and tested James Reason model, fondly called the Swiss Cheese Model.  It shows slices of holey Swiss cheese, that represent a series of barriers:

  • organisational influences
  • supervision
  • preconditions
  • specific acts or omissions

If these are in place and functioning normally, they will prevent an incident.  They all need to fail in order for a hazard to result in a loss or incident.

But what has this to do with the media?

Well, I think that while journalists want to wrap a story up quickly along the lines of ‘suspected pilot error’, they may be missing the chance of being more rigorous, incisive and systemic in their reports, as the story develops.  Understanding the ‘Swiss Cheese model’ and applying some basic root cause analysis principles would help them get to the heart of the story and may inform the questions they ask and the people they may want to speak to. Eyewitnesses and survivors are essential interviewees, but once they’ve been interviewed, trying to speak to other people in the company may also be productive.  And even if they can’t get them to talk, knowledge of incident causation can open up productive avenues for reporters to investigate: company culture, cost savings, redundancies, audit frequency etc.

Getting to the root cause is what investigators do – and nothing is stopping journalists from taking the same approach.  IF the tram was going to fast – why? IF the driver blacked out or fell asleep – WHY?  Was it shifts or rostering, or another reason? Are there cost pressures? How is the company trading and so why might someone want to save money or speed up operations?  Who may have wanted to save money or provide a faster service?  That’s likely a management decision, so how far might this be a local management problem, or a more holistic issue affecting more than one tram, train or plane operated by the company?

I’ve worked as a reporter reporting on disasters, as a crisis manager for a corporate and as a health and safety leader and consultant.  So, in a way, I’m a poacher turned gamekeeper, but my main concern has morphed into working for the prevention of incidents in the first place.

Just as an incident happens through a series of failures, I’m convinced there are multiple contributions to a safer society. The safety professional or regulator won’t solve these issues on their own. In this context, the media does play a critical role in holding companies’ and governments’ feet to the fire on safety.  So if companies consistently faced the prospect of an incisive media with a real grounding in the principles of health and safety management, it may drive a greater diligence around risk management by more companies.  If this results in one fewer injury or fatal incident, then it will have been worthwhile.

Photo thanks to Ciel Bleu

License

Northern Powerhouse: a new pub or an economic policy?

A BBC survey shows nearly two thirds of northerners have never heard of – or don’t know what the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse is…

Imagine the scene: pollster stops man in the street in Manchester and asks if he’s heard of the Northern Powerhouse? Answer: “Is that the new pub on Deansgate?”

While some may think the idea of creating an economic force to equal London is like trying to push treacle up hill, it’s also a tad patronising.  Southern johnnies telling the Northern masses what’s good for them has a long and dishonourable history.

All in all, however, from a communications and engagement point of view, I’m not sure it is critical whether people in the North (cue stereotype of flat headgear and skinny racing dogs) know about the policy or even whether they’ve heard of it.

Indeed, spending money promoting the concept ‘up North’ would simply be a back-door way of spending money on the Conservative re-election campaign and the attraction of doing that for George Osborne, the leader-in-waiting and would-be PM is obvious.

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Investment in infrastructure will be helpful and promoting the region – if you can ever unite the counties of the red and white roses – will also be important. But what is crucial is an externally facing business and investment campaign outside the UK to inward investors across the world.

If Northern England is to compete with regions in Europe, then the communications must be targeted at  so-called ‘foot-loose’  investors for whom a flexible workforce with world-leading skills is a prerequisite, coupled with good infrastructure and travel connections. They also want their ex-pat employees to feel safe and secure and be well-served with excellent education, hospitals, culture and natural environment.

It’s all to play for. But I just wish the Northern Powerhouse concept didn’t sound so Westminster-driven and condescending.

What should tomorrow’s leaders know about sustainability?

Theo Hacking is Programme Director for the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), which currently deliver two part-time Master’s level sustainability programmes. They are exploring new accredited programmes that will address gaps in the sustainability-related qualifications currently available at Cambridge or elsewhere.

They are especially interested in targeting the needs of business and would welcome your suggestions regarding themes to cover, which you believe would address current learning needs.

I share my thoughts here on what might be useful in terms of course content.  My response is also on Linkedin.

Some broad brush policy stuff mixed with some practical business and ‘techy’ stuff would be a good mix from my perspective (and thinking about what my non-sustainability colleagues find useful in my company’s own internal senior leadership training courses).

  • Systems thinking and interrelationships of risks and opportunities.. This was extremely well-done and very relevant when I attended the Prince of Wales Sustainability Leadership course in Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg  (right below) in September 2006.

    Library at Schloss Leopoldskron

  •  Vision 2050 from the WBCSD is good source material and will appeal to business people as it represents their views on how to get “9 billion people living well and within the limits of the planet…
  • You could include impact of socio-political instability on progress to a more sustainable world, ie what is the balance sheet of benefits and impacts of democratization / Arab Spring. Case studies would be interesting to see, although I admit this would need a lot of work (or consolidation of other people’s work) if it is to be of use. However, business is very interested in how resilient they are from a basket of risks, including how instability or hostilities in a country, part of a country or in a larger region can affect business. Deloitte and Forbes did some good and interesting work on this, which was published in August.
  • The apparent contradiction of the ‘greening of the armed forces’, particularly UK and USA – lots of web resources on this. Some weeding and triaging of sources is needed, but when they cite turning over 16 million acres of Defense Department-owned land for renewable power generation, this looks significant. And in the field, deployed and fighting, fuel efficiency for example, makes good military sense in terms of going further on less and a shorter supply chain. The BBC had an interesting programme on this too.
  • Energy efficiency (INTEREST DECLARED as this is what my company is pushing, because 50% or so of our products have an ‘energy efficiency’ criteria). BUT, the McKinsey CO2 abatement curve shows a significant proportion of CO2 reduction will come from energy efficiency. Possibly not the most inspiring topic, but critical for the future.

You can respond to Theo on Linkedin or I will pass comments on from this site.

Sustainability leadership

Big problems probably need a range of people with a range of skills and perspectives to solve them.

Take climate change… or have we given up and are we really talking about ‘the effects of climate change’?

So who are the cast of thousands? And how could they be more effective.

There are the climate experts and the engineers who, respectively, will keep our focus on the issue and who will come up with many solutions for adaptation.  The politicians will debate and either agree on global regulations (incentives and penalties) or agree to disagree.  Businesses will see if there is a buck in contributing to the solution and civil society will see the focus on climate compete for space with the ‘urgent’ issues like fixing economies and stemming unemployment. 

And together we will meander towards the mid-21st century with 9 billion people trying to live productive, peaceful lives ‘within the limits of the planet’.

Some of our future leaders (indeed, some of our current leaders) might like see how education like this can help.

System thinking that brings together and synthesizes experts from fields as diverse as medicine, business and finance, economics, NGOs, trade and employee representive organizations, utilities, armed forces, the media and individuals could start to promote real solutions. 

What is happening in the blogosphere (and Twittersphere) to convene to work through issues – could the cloud be a forum or a workspace to share and work through challenges?  Are they all being used already – and I’m just so far behind the curve?

It seems to me that there are many possible solutions, but few gain traction. 

Any bright ideas?