Monday, August 22, 2011

Nuances vs. hard decisions – the Likert or binary scale as a safety culture indicator

One of the frequent questions about the Safety Perception Survey deals with the use of the more traditional Likert (1 through 5) evaluation scale vs. our binary (yes or no) scale. A number of our safety culture improvement customers have commented on this. Their input comes down to a familiar “central tendency” reality. It seems that when humans are given the option of a 1 – 5 answer scale for a safety survey about 70% of them choose the central tendency answer of a 3. Yes, there are 1 – 7 and 1 – 10 scales out there, but the central tendency reality applies to these slightly modified Likert scales as well.

My discussions with Dr. Dan Petersen about his use of a binary scale revealed that the developers of our Safety Perception Survey noticed this same middle of the road reality in the early stages of their research. Dan’s comment went something like: “We decided that we weren’t interested in the nuances of a 2.8 vs. a 3.2 score. Rather, we wanted to find out if the safety processes were fixed or broken (well or sick).”

As we work with large numbers of customers and 10’s of thousands of surveys some other benefits of the binary answer scale have appeared:

  • The binary scale offers a third option; “I don’t know the answer.” This is a third data bank which reflects a lack of knowledge about questions and processes that have been statistically proven to make a difference in safety performance. In turn ‘no response’ answers allow an organization to relatively quickly and inexpensively train in areas of low safety knowledge and understanding
  • Hourly employees quickly decide the binary yes – no answer they believe is workplace reality. Managers often struggle with making the yes – no decision because “Sometimes we do this and sometimes we don’t.” The managers often take longer to answer the survey questions because they stop to consider this uncertainty that at its root is an indicator of safety culture weakness; “We are inconsistent.” When the Continuous Improvement teams begin focusing on resolving safety culture weaknesses the hourly abruptness and the manager contemplation both help the teams get to in depth, rigorous solutions to safety culture problems.
  • Central tendency survey approaches do not have either of the above strengths.
My experiences after interviewing our customers is that once presented with the brutal facts of what is fixed and what is broken, they are much more able to deliver viable solutions that go beyond the traditional observation systems and psychological approaches to safety culture weaknesses. They too feel that when you pay a doctor for a diagnosis you want a yes or no answer not a “sorta – kinda” maybe. But then our customers are predominately operations type cultures that like the rapid “find it – fix it – move on” approach rather than what is often found in the slower reality of an academic “more study is required” persuasion.

The Doc

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