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Safe production: An oxymoron or a tale of two poles?

Do busy manufacturing or distribution plants have to accept some element of risk to their works if they are to be productive? Kevin Edwards looks at the often polar forces of safety and production and asks if they can be brought together…


Are accidents simply a cost of doing business?

According to studies by Pagell et al. over the last 10 years, this is the belief held by many managers at such sites. As one distribution centre manager, said:

We do make efforts to get our personnel to follow the formally laid down [safety] procedures, but often, because of the constraints within our operation… you’ve got to bend those rules … to get the job done.”

Can production systems be both safe and productive?

Pagell et al believe so. Importantly their research showed that the most productive facilities were also the safest. Such facilities were perceived by their workers to have supportive (long term, preventative) cultures, using joint management systems for both safety and production collectively. Meanwhile, the facilities with lower performance on both safety and productivity had day-to-day (short term, reactive) cultures and lacked these joint management systems.

The research concluded that safe production need not be an oxymoron and that it is possible for organisations to develop joint management systems that simultaneously measure, control, and improve both safety and operations.

So, if it’s possible, why is it so hard to achieve?

“For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” HL Mencken

For most companies, the path to ‘safe production’ is set out in a strategy or roadmap. But what about the journey itself? Can the organisation evolve steadily and assuredly along a timeline towards a supportive culture? Can it build a joint management system in a planned and rational way?  If so, this would suggest an organisation where everyone supports this transformation unreservedly and without any conflict or ambiguity in goals, strategies, roles and practices, and without the existence of the parallel organisation that is power and politics.

We all know that transition from a day-to-day output-oriented culture, to a supportive culture, is not going to be simple and straightforward, as vested interests and personal values surface to either support or thwart the change.

Problem vs polarity

For Johnson (1992, 1996) a problem is a difficulty which can be eliminated by choosing a solution – there is a clear end point i.e. when the solution has been implemented.

A polarity is a difficulty or dilemma that will always be ongoing to a greater or lesser extent. It is unsolvable and contains two seemingly opposing ideas or ‘poles’ which are ever-present and in tension with each other – they are interdependent and need each other to exist… safety and production for instance!

Why is this distinction important? You solve a problem, but you manage a polarity. Attempting to address polarities with traditional problem-solving skills only makes things worse, as an over-focus on meeting the needs of one pole leads to negative, unintended consequences associated with the other.

‘Team Safety’ vs ‘Team Production’?

With culture change, vested interests and personal values will align people to the safety pole or the production pole. If all parties can’t come together to manage this polarity, the following cycle is what organisations might experience:

  • The short-term focus on productivity sees a steady rise in near misses and incidents. ‘Team safety’ push for improvements to safety but the power and politics still favour ‘Team Production’.
  • The growing number of incidents (or a single major incident) causes too much ‘pain’ for the business, so a solution is found – more safety inspections, procedures, training programmes. ‘Team safety’ has won the day – their solution has been imposed (on the polarity).
  • Over time, the neglect of the other pole results in negative consequences. For example, productivity drops due to ‘all these safety activities’ and perceptions start to grow that safety is becoming overly-bureaucratic.
  • When these consequences cause too much ‘pain’ – productivity drops again or a major customer is lost, a solution to remove the pain is found… reduced safety inspections, simpler safety procedures or less safety training. ‘Team Production’s solution is now imposed on the polarity.
  • And so, the cycle repeats itself.

To eliminate this cycle, it requires all parties to recognise the situation as a polarity.

This means understanding the upsides; the positive organisational benefits of each pole, as well as the downsides; what you get if you over-focus on one pole, to the neglect of the other.

All parties need to understand that their joint responsibility and priority is to manage the polarity, not their specific pole. This is where raising awareness through education and creating a positive collaborative attitude comes in, where parties are brought together and given the space to surface, discuss and resolve challenges.

Managing the polarity needs measurable indicators, that will let everyone know when they are starting to move towards the downside of each pole, as well as actions to gain or maintain the positive benefits from each pole.

It’s important to monitor the ‘health’ of each pole so you can spot when you are over-focusing on one to the exclusion of the other; taking corrective action as necessary.

It is worth noting that a ‘core’ polarity such as safety versus productivity will comprise of several elements, each one is likely to be a polarity in itself.  For example, maintenance engineers failing to follow safety rules when fixing equipment that is stopping production. The first step then, is about identifying all the polarities that exist across the organisation relating to the core polarity you are trying to manage.

Managing polarities could be a more constructive and systematic way of an organisation learning to ‘cope with its problems’, and if we can even partly agree with Schein’s view that ‘The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture’ this approach might provide leaders with a useful mechanism by which to shape their desired culture and achieve ‘safe production’.



Johnson, Polarity Management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems, Massachusetts: HRD Press. 1992, 1996

Pagell, M., Johnston, D., Veltri, A., Klassen, R., & Biehl, M. (2014). Is Safe Production an Oxymoron? Production and Operations Management, 23(7), 1161–1175

Pagell, Veltri, Johnston (2016). Getting Workplace Safety Right, MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2016, Vol. 57, No. 2

Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership: A dynamic view. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 1985, 1992.


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