Treat your people well if you want your safety systems to work

Reliability standards all state requirements to planning and managing the functional safety work throughout the lifecycle. There are good and bad ways of doing this, and there is room for interpretation of the requirements in the standard. I’ve previously suggested 4 golden practices for good functional safety management – based on experience with what does not work in complex project organizations in different real-world offshore projects. This time we turn to another important aspect of maintaining focus, drive and high quality in all types of projects. That is how to plan and run a project with the well being of the project members and stakeholders during the process in mind.

“Making a small mistake due to stress and overload can have severe consequences when you are designing a barrier system.”

All resource constrained projects are running the risk of sliding into organizational overload. Overload is when individuals and organizations are fully saturated with workload; a situation where additional stress cannot be handled without decreasing performance. For an individual or organization in overload state, dysfunctional behaviors and dramatically reduced productivity can be expected. Four important factors related to perceived stress levels are competence, comfort, confidence and control. If these “4 C’s” are disrupted, stress increases rapidly and the organization or individual may go into a state of overload. There are many contributors to perceived stress levels for individuals; some of them may be called baseline factors such as type of organization and the organizational culture. Factors typically affecting individual stress levels within a project group are:

•    Scope creep without adequate resource allocation – leading to unrealistically high workloads

•    Need to apply technologies not understood by team members, and without appropriate training

•    Inadequate sponsor and management support

•    Lack of change management capabilities within project team

•    Management pushing for high-risk project without being willing to accept potential failures.

So, how would an overload situation affect the outcomes of SIL work? Would the system be passed through to operations with insufficient quality, or would lower quality products be caught in one or several verification acitivites and be rectified before the system is put to operation? Both scenarios are quite likely to occur. If overload occurs in early phases of the project, it is likely that errors would sneak into the requirement setting phase. There are fewer formal checks on the requirements themselves than on the implementation. The most likely verification activity to catch an error in the requirement phase would be during the functional safety assessment (FSA). It is recommended to have one FSA just after the requirement phase, but many projects skip this and wait until further into the SIS development part of the lifecycle. Discovering errors in requirements late in the project would have significant schedule and cost impact. Worse yet, finding errors in the requirements phase is much more difficult than finding implementation errors later. In software development, it is well-known that about 40-50% of bugs originate from errors in specification. Without specific verification activities on the requirement setting, this is likely to be even worse. For an interesting discussion on software bugs and specifications, see this old blog post from Tyner Blain; One type of error would be to include protection layers that are not really dependable into the risk assessment, generating a lower SIL requirement than necessary. Another error would be to overlook identified hazards, such that there are “holes in the safety net” and effectively zero integrity for that type of scenario. Consequences of organizational overload can thus be severe in a project related to functional safety.

Strategies to counter risk of overload within a project are related to active management and control, both on the people level, as well as on measures of progress and cost control. Practices that are known to reduce likelihood of overload conditions on individual or group levels are:

•    Make few changes, and carefully mange changes when they are necessary

•    Check time constraints and resource allocation – management should not assign unrealistic time constraints on tasks. Most project management frameworks include the notion of “slack planning” to incorporate this task related schedule risk

•    Keep sustaining sponsors actively involved. Lack of interest from senior sponsors is very visible to project members and may hurt the energy levels available to perform at the expected level

•    Improve change capacity by managing talent within the project actively; this includes training, offering career possibilities when project nears delivery as well as succession planning for key roles.

From these bullet points, that are taken from PMI recommendations for handling overload risk, we conclude that taking care of your people is essential for good functional safety. Good competence management is a key to achieving this; lack of confidence in abilities is one of the most common stressors in projects where there is also a high degree of time pressure. Allocating resources such that there are not enough manhours available is just adding fuel to the fire. I have previously referred to this as “stupid resource planning“, and unfortunatley this is quite common, especially when there are schedule slips in projects.

To sum it up – make sure your people are not exposed to negative stressors over time. Maintain a positive attitude as a project manager – you are the leader of your people working on the project. In that respect – the most important thing of all is – “catch your people doing something right” – give praise whenever it is deserved. That takes the edge off of people and motivates them – the best cure there is against negative stress.

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