Han Solo – Risk Manager

I have a really bad feeling about this

In Star Wars, Han Solo and other major characters express their gut feeling about various situations.  In traditional risk management parlance, that “gut feeling” would equate to subjectivity, an element of decision-making that needs to be minimised in risk management if not eliminated.  This has been sought through various statistical analysis tools, risk nomograms and rational approaches to risk.  But all decision-making has an element of the emotional, the subjective, the gut-feeling.  This position was emphasised recently in a presentation in an OHS conference by Dr David Brooks who described risk management as an art as well as a science.

Such a description may lead to the implication that risk management can legitimately be open to as large a range of interpretations as many visual arts can be, leading to risk management anarchy.  What Brooks was acknowledging was the subjectivity in decision-making for which, sometimes, there is no rational basis, or at least no rational basis in the often short time allotted for a decision to be made.  Sometimes risk management comes down to a “best guess”.

We should not get hung up on the “guess” part but we should be working to ensuring that the “best” is really as good as can be, given the circumstances in which the “best guess” will be voiced.  To achieve this goal, safety and risk professionals must have a broad understanding, or at least an awareness, of issues that could affect a decision.  In occupational health and safety (OHS), this needs to include how a rule or a policy is likely to be applied, where that rule or law has originated, and the baggage, ideology or politics contained within that rule.

Does this counter the move to establish “evidence-based decision-making“? No.  The decision-making process has not changed but the knowledge base from which that decision is drawn has.  There is less need to rely on gut-feeling in the 21st century as there was in the past as the pool of information easily available to professionals is greater now than ever before, but there has been a corresponding rise in unreliability of that data.

OHS and risk professionals need to develop super sensitive filters as well as a broad knowledge base to even approach an attempt at the “best guess”.  In some high-risk industries, such guesses have to be very, very good.  In lower-risk industries and occupations, the consequences of a poor decision may be considerably less catastrophic but there is just as much expectation that no decision should be “poor”, that every guess is a best guess.

Specialist OHS and risk professionals need to be particularly aware that too much speciality could limit the effectiveness of  their skills in the broader OHS market.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories conference, evidence, Leadership, OHS, research, risk, safetyTags , , , ,

12 thoughts on “Han Solo – Risk Manager”

  1. A gut feeling comes from experience. When it comes to risk, you are trained to look at past experiences in order to decide how best to move forward. This can relate to risk associated with any kind of job or industry.

  2. I think that ‘gut feeling’ is analogous with ‘experience’. Gut feeling is the (subconscious) minds ability to intuitively know the outcome of something without necessarily being able to explain why. In terms of the mechanisms that control this, insight (rational reasoning of cause and effect) plays a large part. It is past experiences that help form such insights. In this respect ‘gut feelings’ should not be overlooked.

    I personally do not like the expression ‘best guess’ preferring instead ‘educated guess’ as it implies the inclusion of insight. Semantics, perhaps, but when the weight of words plays such an importance in how intent is interpreted, such details are important. Interpretation of such information is also important and context is really the driver here. Should you err on the side of caution? or ignore such incomplete information?

    With respect to the subjective nature of risk management, this is the basis for ALL qualitative risk assessment systems. even those that claim to be semi-quantative simply apply a value to a subjective choice. Employing a quantative risk management system is simply too expensive for most employers with respect to OH&S. The magnitude of such assessments is simply out of the reach of most. For higher risk applications there are better tools to use such as HAZOP or FMEA but even these still employ subjectivity to identify failure modes.

    The filter for this information, as you say is indeed the risk facilitator. Being a facilitator can be an arduous task. There are many facets to the skills involved, and only some of these are obtained with formal training / qualifications. It is their job to ensure that the right people are involved, and that their contributions are interpreted correctly. This also includes looking into any ‘gut feelings’ that may be presented and to try and establish the cause and effect behind them.

    ‘Trust you instincts’. ‘Follow your gut’. There are good reasons why such expressions are commonly recited and whilst we may not understand why, there is often value in heeding such feelings. How many times have you heard (with respect to accidents) ‘I could see it happening’, or ‘I thought something was wrong’. Gut feelings or insight as it is correctly called is not something to be ignored.

  3. However,

    Kevin. In Australian industry – across the board – over the last 10 years or so risk assessment and risk management have been unashamedly used to slow down improvements. More times than not. Check what Prof. Quinlan and coroner Chandler wrote about the Beaconsfield rock fall to get a sense of what I mean. Check what was said about Longford explosions and fires in Victoria after all the risk assessment etc. embroidery.

    The notion of ‘twitches’ and intuitions is very important but so is the fact that the process associated with risk assessment/management is terribly corrupt in real life. “You ought to move that drum full of formaldehyde away from the door to the lunch room” is greeted with a sincere-looking “You have a point, we’ll immediately conduct a risk assessment. Thankyou for bringing it to our attention!”

    Spock had integrity, even during must!

  4. Paul, your reference to the judgement of children is apt as children have a limited source of information about risks. They are naive in the true sense. During schooling children are exposed to knew sources of information that will help improve their decision-making process but often this new information is presented as somehow better, more valid than the gut feeling. I contend that the new information makes for a better judgement and not a replacement.

    That is why I have always advocated embracing the subjective and incorporating it into risk management and decision-making. In keeping with the initial science fiction reference, Spock was a better person when he acknowledged and used his humanity than holding rigidly to the teachings of Vulcan.

    (Oh dear, my geek is showing) 🙂

  5. Many comments are noting the need for experieince in OHS education. I agree that OHS students (indeed any students) must have some time in the real non-academic world in order to apply some of their schooling and see how it needs refining and readjusting in order to be practical.

    One risk with this approach is that it can become ageist and elitist. Intuiition is partly gained through experience but there must already be a little bit of wisdom for intuition to build and improve. I don’t see wisdom as age related. (In fact, I would proobably more likely see bigotry and intolerance as more related to age) In some people there is a confluence of attitudes, skills, knowledge and wisdom that increase the accuracy and reliability of the gut feeling.

    As OHS and risk professionals it is part of our job to encourage everyone to achieve that useful, practical and progressive confluence.

  6. There is rarely one answer to an issue.

    To manage risk, statistics give us an objective background, if they are comprehensive and true! e.g. not eveyone report incidents and often they can be ‘coded’ incorrectly.

    Gut feeling comes from exposure/experience to various incidents, as much as it does from intuition. Everyone possesses intuition (whether you are male or female)!

    Gut feeling probably developed in us as children, when we assessed whether climbing a tree or riding a bicycle was a risk, after the hairs stood up on the back of our necks. This is training.

    I see no disadvantage to approaching risk assesment with both stats, industry experience and training, even that training from childhood.

    The next step is consultation with those doing the work and experts, to get a rounded knowledge, to approach risk management and the development of controls.

  7. SO what is a specialist anyway? Isit someone that has a Uni degree or similar or someone with vast experience on the job or is it something different again? Never underestimate the thinking of the working man. Just because he hasn’t been afforded the same education as others doesn’t equate to not being on the same page as a “specialist”. Risk Management can sometimes be a best guess, but I wouldn’t like to put my life or livelihood on it. For every hazard, there is an associated risk. For every risk there is an associated possibility (or probability) of someone (or a multpile of that) being hurt or worse. A “best guess” doesn’t cut it in my book. If you are still unsure after the analysis, then get a subject matter expert for appropriate advice.

  8. I agree with your sentiments Kevin. While we would like to have set processes and systems many “OHS Specialists” operate within dynamic environments that constantly change personnel and lose corporate memory. Good risk assessments need good facilitators who while being analytical and disciplined, can also sense the feelings of the parties involved in assessment, particularly those on the floor. While the touchy feely component can get a good consensus of the risk , its only part of the way. Knowing the parties involved can help direct them into a best outcome control. Specialist knowledge is very important but it can be even better with the psychological understanding of people involved.

  9. Hi Kevin,
    Whilst I appreciate the gist of the article and recognise much truth in what is written, I’m somewhat concerned when, as I read it, your primary focus is on how OHS & Risk professionals interpret risk factors and make decisions.
    In my experience many ‘risk desicions’ are made by individuals with limted safety training. This is primarily because the organisations I have worked for have limited ‘specialist’ resource and so much work happens without reference to the specialist.
    I belive the two primary keys to good risk decision making are:
    1: recognise that a risk exists – especially in something you’ve never been exposed to before. Any person who doesn’t recognise this is at risk
    2: consult on the risk factors.
    If workers follow these 2 simple rules, at least the scope of infomration about the risk can be expanded to improve the decision making process.

    A secondary issue is whether people use ‘worst case’ or ‘most likley’ outcomes to establish a risk score. Eg: When I teach risk management I encourage people to first rate the risk of a fire occurrent – emergency management planning.
    Then I ask them to consider what would be the worst case outcome? Normally people would identify that fatality is the worst case.
    Then I ask ‘what woul dbe the most liekly outcome. The normal response is ‘bunrs, smoke inhalation, possibly soft tissue/broken bones from falls.
    Both risk scenaros are accurate but which shoul dbe used for decision making?
    Only expereince can make a ‘best guess’ judgement where these situationsa rise.
    Again, consultaiton is the key to ensuring experience is captured and used in the assessment process.


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