Sensemaking

Sensemaking

This is a topic page to show an overview of a sub field of Integrated operations, describing the knowledge developed by the IO Center

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Sensemaking can be critical to safety because the first signs of a problem that may develop into an accident are often ambiguous and easy to ignore or explain away. Sensemaking is a social process, not something that just happens inside our heads. It has no absolute starting point or end-point in time. Sensemaking is usually retrospective: We choose an action and then try to construct a justification for that action, rather than the other way round. We usually strive for plausibility rather than accuracy. Integrated operations change the preconditions for sensemaking by giving access to more real time data, providing new visualisations of such data, connecting operating personnel and technical specialists in real time and by reducing the time to reach a decision. It is therefore an important task to enhance the collaborative efforts involved in making sense of information and producing adequate responses to challenging situations. This requires looking beyond "work as imagined", i.e. the idealised work processes that are reflected in governing documentation, plans and procedures. We need to support "work as done", i.e. actions and practices that go beyond plans and procedures, as these are essential for achieving safe and reliable operations.
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Making sense of sensemaking

The term "sensemaking" means exactly what it says: Somebody making sense of something. It is something we do all the time. Because it happens all the time, we rarely reflect on how sensemaking happens.

Sensemaking is a social process, and it may even involve non-human actors such as transmitters, computers and software.

Sensemaking is a never-ending process. It is not limited to a discrete step in an idealised decision process (e.g. diagnosing a situation before you identify your response options). However, sensemaking often occurs in distinct episodes. Such episodes typically start with surprise, uncertainty or ambiguity, and they end when we have found an account of the situation that is "good enough". We thus tend to strive for plausibility rather than accuracy (Weick, 1995). This may even apply to safety critical decision making, because certain knowledge is not always within reach.

Sensemaking is retrospective (Weick, 1995). We tend to choose an action and then try to construct a justification for that action, rather than the other way round. This is reflected in a passage attributed to Graham Wells: "How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"

Sensemaking and safety

People think by acting (Weick, 1988). Sensemaking often involves trying out a path of action to test our hypotheses or getting more information. We may thus change the reality that we are trying to make sense of. This may create a dilemma during crisis situations: The actions we take to make sense of the situation may intensify the crisis, whereas a reluctance to act could lead to less learning and more errors. Moreover, the actions that we take may create commitment, and commitment may produce blind spots. After taking an action, we tend to build an explanation that justifies that action, and then to take that explanation for granted. This makes us less attentive to alternative interpretations of the situation.

People see those events they feel they have a capacity to do something about (Weick, 1988). Increasing people's response capacity will therefore help them perceive a crisis situation more accurately.

It is easier to detect and handle safety problems if more people are in constant touch with the system. Ideally, these people should have different experience and skills, but at the same time sufficient mutual respect that they speak and listen to each other.

"Work as done" and "work as imagined"

How can we enhance the collaborative efforts involved in making sense of information and producing adequate responses to challenging situations? Haavik & Wærø (2012, 2013) studied how an onshore rig team made sense of situations when the observed deviated from the expected. They interviewed onshore drilling personnel and observed sense-making during morning meetings between the onshore rig-teams and the platform.

Onshore drilling personnel often describe drilling as a streamlined and standardised activity with clearly defined processes. From this viewpoint, the success of a drilling operation depends on good planning and strict compliance. "Work as imagined" refers to these idealised work processes, which are reflected in governing documentation, plans and procedures. Efforts to improve quality and safety usually address "Work as imagined".

By “work as done” we refer to the actual work practice applied in day-to-day operations, including problem solving and contingency handling. “Work as done” is not just an imperfect version of “work as imagined”. Experienced personnel have a rich toolbox of strategies that they employ on and beyond the confines of the plans and procedures. Haavik & Wærø (2012) concluded that actions and practices that go beyond plans and procedures are essential for achieving safe and reliable operations.

In consequence, organisations should pay more attention to “work as done” and develop a common understanding of the importance of practices that go beyond administrative systems, plans and procedures. This would help operators to improve a neglected area of their actual work processes. It would also provide guidance on how to adapt IO model based decision support tools to strengthen the actual collective sensemaking processes. The report by Haavik & Wærø (2013) gives input to development of guidelines and suggests concrete measures such as alternative models, more hands-on involvement, better utilisation of existing real-time data and explicit training on interpretation work.

Further reading

Haavik, T.K. & Wærø, I. (2012). Sensemaking in Integrated Drilling Operations. Acknowledging the Pragmatic Nature of 'Work as done'. Report. Trondheim: Center for Integrated Operations in the Petroleum Industry.

Haavik, T.K. & Wærø, I. (2013). Time and Tools to Make Sense: Recommendations. Report. Trondheim: Center for Integrated Operations in the Petroleum Industry.

Weick, K.E. (1988). Enacted sensemaking in crisis situations. Journal of Management Studies 25(4), 305-317.

Weick, K.E. (1995). Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE.

 

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