Have we become OSH data junkies?

I was relieved to learn today, that far from saying “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” what W. Edwards Deming actually said was “It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.”


It’s puzzling isn’t it, that the shortened version – which is actually the opposite of what he did say – should become the mantra that it has, almost without question, in so many quarters? Perhaps it’s that we’d prefer it to be true; that otherwise complex and intangible things, can be reduced to simple facts and figures.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that in occupational safety and health (OSH), we’ve taken things too far and that we’ve become ‘OSH data junkies’, fixated to the point of obsession with measuring stuff. For me, there’s far more to managing well than managing what you can measure.

I’ll put my hand up; my name is Michael Emery and I have been a data junkie. I’ve bought in to the balanced scorecard dashboard key performance indicator metric world as much as the next man/woman and I do still believe in the value of data, to an extent. I’ve come to realise however that just because I believe for example, that the more people at work talk about safety, the better it is, that isn’t enough of a reason to measure the number of conversations.

I understand of course that carefully selected KPIs, encourage the behaviours you want and therefore measuring the number of conversations will drive up the number of conversations. I get that, but that’s kind of my point. I feel as though we’re caught in a blizzard of data, that I know is intended to help us manage the quality of what we do, but which actually obscures the quality of what we’re trying to measure.

And quality matters. The quality of conversations matter. The quality of relationships matter. And the inability to discuss OSH matters effectively can undermine all other safety effort, turning valuable opportunities for learning and progress into damaging ‘gotcha’ moments. When you believe that all of these things are true, then measuring the number of conversations suddenly seems superficial at best and at worst, harmful.

So the obvious question arises then … if we’re not going to measure the number of conversations, what should we measure?

That was a joke.

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