Safety Innovation Video Series: The importance of learning teams


Safety Innovation Video Series: The importance of learning teams

Posted on 22 April 2024

In this instalment of our Safety Innovation video series, we speak with Richard Brookes, Group Head of Health and Safety at South Staffordshire Plc.

In this video we explore the importance of a learning team, who should be involved in learning teams, and the benefits they bring.

Why is a learning team important? 

So a learning team is essentially a proactive way of investigating normal work. The traditional safety approach tends to wait for the bad outcome, whether that's an accident or a near miss. But I think, what you find if you sort of take a HOP approach to things is all of the contributory factors to an event are normally discoverable, they are present before the bad outcomes. 

You've got to create the space where frontline workers, SMEs can come into a room and have a facilitated conversation about how they deliver work. And you can explore, yes, the gaps, and the trade-offs. You can ask questions along the lines of, "What does a good day look like?" and explore what is needed for it to be a good day. You can explore what does a bad day look like. The learning teams allows an organisation to understand the dynamics of work, and drive improvement, build trust through its frontline teams. 

Who should be involved in a learning team? 

The best group of people to have involved in a learning team is essentially those that are closest to the work. Again, this is exploratory, it's curious, and you need information from the people that have got experience of undertaking those tasks. So you typically want five or six - you want to try and keep the group smaller so you can have a healthier conversation. What that learning team's essentially trying to do is to discover those adaptions, those trade-offs, the dynamics of real work, to understand where are we drifting away from work as we imagine it being done versus how it has to be done in the real world, and trying to connect and have a constant conversation about those two points because then you're in a place where you can understand how real work is being delivered in the absence of anything going wrong. 

Where to start and what are the benefits? 

The best way to go about a learning team, if this is the first time you've done them, is to get into your most hazardous work, your critical stuff. But the benefit is, we don't have to hurt anyone. Where do you want to focus? You want to know how your most critical risks are always being managed. Are we good or are we just lucky? And if we don't know the difference between those two points, again, that's where a learning team can help organisations understand that dynamic. 

What is the benefit of a learning team over an investigation? 

I think for me, this gets into the complexity of work, and that's a difficult concept to sort of explain, but work has to interact with the real world. And the moment that happens and the fact that you've got complicated human beings delivering that work, it almost automatically becomes complex. And what traditional safety typically tries to do is sort of put a linear process in, a simple process to manage something that's complex and that doesn't always work. 

So to deal with complexity, you've got to try and sense how work is being delivered and how good are most organisations are at undertaking that in a deep meaningful way. We can have our processes that sort of convince us how it is actually delivered. But it is that actually how frontline workers need to deliver it. And is this some of the issue around when an event happens and immediately your safety team drops in, we do an investigation, and what you discover is we've moved away from what the process says we should be doing. And then it's typically a worker led conversation around, well, this person did this or didn't do this. And we've got our cause, it's the human being. But it ignores some of the systemic weaknesses that can exist inside a system, again, because it's dynamic and it drifts over time. So, staying in that space is really important.

How are learning teams linked to HOP? 

It's really driven by the two fundamental principles of HOP for me that it's context that drives behaviour. The conversation with frontline workers identifies the context within which they deliver stuff. And then the second piece is learning has to be deliberate and a learning team is a deliberate, intended action inside an organisation to find out some things that it doesn't know at the moment. So what HOP's seeking to do is understand the dynamics between systems and people so that you improve performance. And I think what I really enjoy about a HOP approach is that it isn't just in a safety context. All it is concerned with is human performance and enhancing that performance as much as it possibly can by having a deep understanding of the systems that set people to work.

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