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Success: It’s Made From Swiss Cheese

I have a non-professional personal interest in aviation – I fly helicopters for a hobby. Part of that draws me to reading accident reports (mainly from the UK AAIB) so that I can try and make sure I don’t make the same mistakes that others have made.

Of course, there are lots of anecdotes and theories out there about safety in aviation and how accidents come to be; but one has become widely accepted and used in industries outside of aviation:  The Swiss Cheese Model.  Much to the annoyance of risk managers and accident investigators, I’ll over simplify it:

The end result of an accident rarely happens because of one single failure. Instead it happens because of a series of failures which alone are not enough to result in the accident, but when combined in the right order (the holes line up) you get the accident.

Risk managers and the like will describe each layer of the cheese (with a hole in) as a defence against an outcome you don’t want.

But What If You Do Want The Outcome?

I’ve been thinking a lot about success lately, what defines it and what gets you there (in no small part thanks to visiting Cmdr Chris Hadfield and listening to him talk).  We use the Swiss Cheese Model and we assume the outcome is negative and something we don’t want… but what if we turned that around and at the end it was the outcome we wanted; it was our success.

Once you’ve defined your idea of success you need to get there. Sadly very, very few people get there instantly (and even if you could, would there be the same sense of achievement?).  Instead we work at it.

What we really do is make a series of small decisions and eventually they should all line up like the proverbial Swiss Cheese.

Lining Up The Holes.

Making the decisions (the hole in each slice of cheese) is the easy bit – we can all make a decision.  What we need to do, to complete my analogy, is make sure we’re making the right decision and that it lines up with where we want to be… does it line up with our aim, our desired outcome?

Swap Hazards & Accident for Decision & Success.
Swap Hazards & Accident for Decision & Success.

When we’re making those decisions, choosing which hole in the cheese we want to take a path through, we have to do so knowing our ultimate aim:  make sure we chose the hole which fits with our strategy.

For example: If we’re implementing a Windows ERP solution and need to select a web server then we need to bear in mind our strategy is Windows and we’re building that skill base; an Apache server may not help the holes line up!

Each small decision lines up our Swiss Cheese slices – the culmination of those slices (decisions) is the result we want.


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