The difference between ‘desk’ and ‘doing’

This week I was talking to an operations team to get their views on the historical approach taken to safety and how we can achieve successful outcomes moving forward. These types of discussions always take a little while to warm up and about half way through the conversation one of the team made the following statement: “There is a difference between ‘desk’ and ‘doing’!”. How awesome is that? Work as imagined vs work as done in a nutshell – straightforward, easy to understand and right to the point.

At first glance this seems insightful (and it is) but here’s the thing – for our workers it isn’t that insightful, because they get this. To them, it’s obvious. They all know about the difference between desk and doing, because they’ve put up with it for years – safety people coming in to tell them how to do their job, or writing procedures, standards and guidelines for activities that they’ve never undertaken. They see through all the ridiculous bureaucracy that desk jockeys develop and recognise it for what it is. Andrew Barrett did a recent episode on his Safety on Tap podcast about BS safety (BS, not BBS, although you’ll note BBS has BS written right there in its name) calling people out on it. The workers have tried calling it out for years, but nobody’s listened.

Finally, this is starting to change. Whether you call it the new view, safety 2, safety differently, human performance or whatever, a worker-centric approach is the new black. There is a chapter in my book titled The Resistance that deals with those people fighting a rear-guard action against this change in perspective. But those people are not front-line workers – the biggest opposition comes, by and large, from safety teams. In the chapter, I quote Tolstoy:

I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.

So, come on safety people. Accept that obvious truth – stop desking and start understanding how it’s done. Then we can work out between us how to make it safe and successful.

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