What is HOP? A Quick Introduction to the Fail Safely Movement

What do you think it would take to eliminate all risks from your organization? An enormous safety budget? Stringent hiring practices? Investing in the most advanced technology on the market? Or all of the above?

Practitioners of Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) believe no one will ever eliminate all errors — at least as long as humans are involved. Humans are fallible, people make mistakes, and there’s nothing you can do to change those core facts. 

HOP practitioners maintain that mistakes happen because workers don’t think what’s going to happen would ever happen to them. The logic makes sense. You’ve never met someone who said, “I’m going to take a shortcut with this machine, and I’m going to lose a finger.” 

Using these principles, HOP argues that you should embrace human error and use what those errors tell you to build a safer place to work.

What is HOP?

Human and organizational performance (HOP)  is a tool that helps safety practitioners answer the question: how can we do safety differently?

At its core, HOP uses social science to design more resilient working systems. It’s not a step-by-step risk management program. Instead, it’s a way of looking at how humans behave, the way they work, and the systems designed to support them from day-to-day. Think about it like a philosophy of workplace safety rather than a prescriptive program or management system.

Here’s the big-ticket idea within HOP: unlike a risk management program that works hard to eliminate, mitigate, or substitute risk, HOP assumes that mistakes will happen. In essence, humans try hard, but they’re not perfect. No amount of planning or equipment can make them perfect.

HOP Helps People Make Safer Decisions

HOP practitioners and researchers tend to illustrate their assertions by exploring the history of automotive design. Automotive manufacturers demonstrate a mode of thinking that allows humans to fail safely. Today’s cars aren’t just structurally safer than past models. They also have features that aim to support drivers in making the best decisions possible.

While all manufacturers use these principles to some extent, Volvo makes them part of its brand. Volvo designs cars that “put people first.”

The new Volvo XC-90 even tells you when you’re too tired to drive and suggests places to stop through its ADAS feature. You might think a feature like this is superfluous: after all, drivers should know when they’re tired and understand that driving while tired is dangerous. With that said, drivers make decisions with the best information available to them at the time. Sometimes, despite their best efforts, they need an extra reminder to do the safe thing (e.g., stop for a rest break).

How often do they need those reminders? The data doesn’t lie. Early results from Volvo’s ADAS feature show a 27% reduction in bodily injury claim frequency and a 19% reduction in property damage frequency.

Everyone knows they shouldn’t drive when they’re tired. It’s not just common sense, but it’s also the subject of pre-licensing theory and ongoing public health campaigns. But sometimes drivers need support to make the safe choice, and Volvo gives it to them. That’s HOP.

HOP is More Than Human Error Management

HOP believes almost every human error has a connection to other processes, like process design or organizational expectations. For example, if an organization expects that work will be completed within a deadline with no exceptions, then risky behaviors used to save time may be at least a partial product of those expectations.

In other words, worker behavior triggers the latent conditions that lie dormant waiting for one error. (Check out the Swiss Cheese model from James Reason for more.)

HOP is more than Human Error Management. It exists within the design of physical systems, organizational systems processes, and culture. You can see HOP everywhere: there are blade guards on saws because the manufacturer assumes that the system will fail and a worker will touch the blade, even though every worker knows the danger. Hence, saw manufacturers install guards so that workers can fail safely.

HOP argues that organizations can identify common errors through employee experiences because few errors happen once – most employees experienced them before.

What Are the Benefits of HOP for Organizations?

You have a safety and risk management plan and a great team carrying it out. So what does HOP offer you?

Essentially, you can’t manage what you don’t understand, and HOP principles help you peel back the layers to begin the work of understanding. HOP practitioners say that implementing HOP does more than reduce human errors and prevent injuries. It also has real day-to-day and long-term benefits for both workers and organizations.

By diving into HOP, you can elicit better safety engagement and increased ownership among workers. Rather than placing blame on workers for inevitable error, you help them help themselves.

You’ll also find reduced bureaucracy by focusing on work processes and safety practices as they are rather than as they should be. And all the learning you do (through operational learning and learning teams) gives you the ammunition needed for Improved performance across KPIs.

Dr. Todd Conklin’s 5 Principles of HOP

So you’re ready to learn more? There’s no step-by-step playbook for HOP, but there are guiding principles developed by Dr. Todd Conklin, who has spent 15 years studying human performance at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Dr. Todd Conklin tells us in his book, The Five Principles of Human Performance, that there are five principles in HOP. These new five principles differ from the old principles of human performance, which focused on ways to fix the worker.

Dr. Conklin’s principles include:

  1. “Human error is normal.”
  2. “Blame fixes nothing.”
  3. “Learning is vital.”
  4. “Context drives behavior.”
  5. “How you respond to failure matters.”

In essence, Dr. Conklin’s principles of HOP say that humans will make mistakes. But instead of blaming the worker for every error, we need systems that allow humans to “zig instead of zag” without resulting in catastrophe.

In the case of the Volvo X-90, Volvo assumes most drivers will “zig” and stop to rest, particularly once its ADAS system nudges them to do so. But if a driver “zags” and keeps driving, Volvo also includes collision avoidance, driver assistance systems, and driver monitoring cameras to prevent accidents where possible and keep the driver safe when it’s unavoidable.

The HOP perspective for organizations says the best way to design safer systems and work towards organizational excellence is to continually learn from “normal work” by treating people as problem-solvers rather than problems.

Rather than punishing inevitable failures, strong organizations respond to an employee who “zags” as a learning opportunity. When you treat workers as problem-solvers, you can learn more about your context (or perception of it) and start to peel back the layers of your safety data. Looking at safety this way puts the value behind Volvo’s innovation into context.

Does HOP Make You a Nanny?

Some wonder whether trying to intercept worker behavior leads to a nanny system, free from personal responsibility. But HOP doesn’t work that way. Rather than micromanaging, HOP argues that you can’t manage what you don’t understand.

Let’s return to HOP’s interest in automotive safety. Society and its institutions consistently give people ample opportunity to become safer drivers. For starters, you need a driver’s license to legally operate a vehicle But you need driver education and training to get a license; you can lose your license for driving dangerously; and there’s no end to public health campaigns reminding drivers not to drive tired, distracted, or under the influence.

So why did Volvo feel the need to develop a feature to tell drivers to take a nap when drivers are socially conditioned to know better?

Because despite all the effort put into developing safe drivers, there are still pressures facing drivers every day. 

People may drive recklessly because they’ll get fired if they’re late for work; they may glance at their phone just this once because they’ve never been in an accident before; they may experience a personal emergency and need to drive, even though they are tired, upset, or distracted.

Like your workers, drivers make the best decisions with the info they have at the time and based on their context. They never set out to get into a crash.

Ultimately, HOP doesn’t turn you into a nanny, just as Volvo’s safety features don’t make the manufacturer big brother.

Conklin notes HOP is the difference between fixing the worker vs. fixing the system. The Volvo ADAS system used industry data to give drivers extra tools to remind them to operate a vehicle as safely as possible. HOP has the same goal.

Dive Deeper into Worker Behavior with HOP

You can’t fix what you don’t understand, and HOP offers a window into parsing worker behavior and creating systems to support them. You don’t need to look far to see examples of HOP principles in the world: you probably have a few of them in your car.

By accepting that humans make mistakes and blame won’t stop them, you can use HOP to learn more about the context within which people work and respond to failure in a way tha prevents catastrophe. When you prepare for humans to “zag” instead of “zig,” you create learning opportunities and protect workers, systems, and organizations.

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Team Safesite

By Team Safesite

We're a group of safety and tech professionals united in our desire to make every workplace safer. We keep a pulse on the latest regulations, standards, and industry trends in safety and write about them here on our blog.

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