top of page

Five Risk Management lessons we can learn from elephants - Lesson 5

Eating the Elephant

Desmond Tutu once wisely said that "there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time." What he meant by this is that everything in life that seems daunting, overwhelming, and even impossible can be accomplished gradually by taking on just a little at a time. Likewise, risk management isn't a sprint. Risks change and are dynamic. So prepare to eat an Elephant.

In this, the last article in a series of five articles on Risk Management Lessons, we can learn from elephants; I have again reached out to my friend Rodger Hollins, a Health and Safety Advisor from The Waikato, and asked him to share his thoughts. Rodger discusses five simple requirements to break down and execute your risk management improvement initiatives into bite-size chunks.

It had been three months since my last visit. The site I was visiting had engaged in quarterly reviews to help their team manage a few significant challenges that they had been facing around critical risks and contractor management. Driving through the main entrance, I made my way to the allocated parking area and immediately noticed something new. All the vehicles in the parking lot were reverse parked. I found the nearest available parking space and conformed to the expected behaviour, indicated by a shiny new sign on display “All visitors must reverse park”. I reversed my car into the parking space, donned the required PPE and made my way to the site manager's office to report for the review.

I met up with Teresa, the site manager, who looked quite flustered. The site was in the middle of its busiest phase, which you could see in the faces of everyone nearby. “Good to see you again, Teresa” I greeted. “I love the new parking arrangements.” Teresa looked at me, rolled her eyes, sighed and said. “Every time someone from head office visits us, they leave us with another great idea and rule for us to implement. We just cannot keep up.”

How long would you keep playing a game that you cannot win?

Let’s venture off to the sports field for a moment. Imagine that you are playing a game of football. As the final game in the competition, it is quite an important game. You and your team have worked hard to get to this point. Everyone is tired but excited about the opportunity to take home the trophy. This game though seems to have a very peculiar problem. Every time someone from your team tries to strike the ball into the goal nets, the goal posts move! In this game, it seems impossible to score a goal, no matter how hard you all try. Thinking about the effort that everyone is putting in to score a goal, the question is, how long would you and your team keep on playing? How long would you keep on trying before giving up, especially once it becomes apparent that you can never win?

In this month’s article, we focus on a concept shared by Desmond Tutu, who was an anti-apartheid activist from South Africa who once said that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, implying that all big and seemingly unattainable goals can be achieved if broken down into “bite-sized” chunks. He, of course, referred to the struggle for freedom in South Africa.

In the field of health & safety, to some, it may often feel as if implementing health & safety arrangements is like trying to eat an entire elephant, particularly when every idea, big or small, is thrown at a team all at once. The use of terms such as “continuous improvement” used in certain standards in the past, arguably played their part in creating a mindset that change or “improvement” should be constant. The well-applied “copy/paste” effect also played its part, where health & safety ideas and solutions were “borrowed” from one site and transferred to another, simply because they seemed to be a good idea at the time. These, and other similar behaviours questionably created a significantly steep “change curve” leaving many people in workplaces feeling overwhelmed, with a sense that the “goal posts keep moving all the time” and perhaps, that the task is as big as an elephant. It’s no wonder some people seem as if they are giving up, simply choosing to get on with the job the best they can, but by leaving health & safety aspects to someone else.

So how could sound risk management principles help manage this? How can risk management help you and your team eat an elephant, one bite at a time, without overwhelming everyone? Here are 5 points to think about:

Identifying the important information without delay.

Effective risk management processes focus on promptly identifying hazards and the risks associated with them. Although highlighting every hazard all in one go is probably not achievable, a structured and systematic process allows teams to focus on what is important and to methodically work through critical hazards and risks related to the workplace and work.

Identifying the bite-size pieces by prioritising.

Effective risk management processes focus on prioritisation so that important aspects are dealt with as soon as needed and that “nice to have ideas” only change when convenient or appropriate. Not every change has to happen immediately. Assessing the level of risk allows teams to prioritise critical risks and allows for resources to be allocated effectively. Prioritising the “stuff that really matters” allows teams to break down the bigger task of health & safety at work into manageable segments.

Determining effective controls with a support plan.

Effective risk management processes support the identification and implementation of short-term and long-term controls, improving the quality of risk management over time. By considering risk and available resources, teams can focus efforts and money in the right places; they can spend the necessary time needed to implement and maintain systems as opposed to applying “quick fixes” that have short life spans.

Delegating tasks and responsibilities

Effective risk management processes make use of the right people and internal/external competencies. No one suggested that you had to eat the elephant by yourself. Having a group of people help prioritise risks and controls, plus through promoting a culture that shows that healthy and safe work is part of the operations, team effort can make the most arduous task seem achievable.

Being Resilient and Patient.

Teams that implement effective risk management processes practice patience. There is going to be a few hiccups and hurdles, but that’s normal and expected. Remember that risks change and arrangements change as assessments are often based on the best available information at the time of development. As more information becomes available, updates and adjustments will be needed. That being said, if there are robust, clearly communicated, and applied processes in place that are supported by a team and not just a few individuals, these changes can be prioritised and dealt with appropriately. Be persistent, be consistent, maintain reasonable timelines for detailed and meaningful application of solutions and review at planned intervals as part of your continual improvement cycle.

In our industry, as health & safety people, we are passionate about caring for others and preventing harm, but one risk of implementing too much too quickly, without structure, is that it creates a shallow system that struggles to sustain itself. This creates additional work and frustration in the long term as the superficial application of anything will need additional maintenance and “band-aids”.

A well-thought-out plan and steady application thereof, based on risk creates an opportunity for deeper, more meaningful systems and processes that are more likely to succeed in the long term.

As always, we’d be keen to learn more about how you manage and spread the load to help everyone in your team cope and adopt meaningful health & safety arrangements in your workplace. How do you help your team eat an elephant?

Take care

bottom of page