Do You Want A Faster Horse Or A Car?

Stuart Farquharson

There is a famous quote (somewhat dubiously) attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

How relevant is this in today’s society especially in the space of innovation?  Extremely…You’d fall off your chair if you could see how many times companies and people have asked for a faster horse! 

I believe that in the coming years if we look back, we will find that many companies have simply developed faster ( sometimes even slower) horses. What do I mean by this? I mean that companies and people are developing technology and ‘digitising processes’ simply for the sake of making an online system, an application or ‘going paperless’, possibly because they have seen other companies go down this path. 

This can sometimes be an extremely expensive process, and often doesn’t meaningfully change any processes or behaviours at the coalface. In the safety world, we have seen time and time again, companies going digital to achieve exactly the same end result they were achieving before. They are either getting their people on the ground to go through the same ‘tick and flick’ exercise or people sitting in an office filling out templates, simply to appease upper management and make a pretty colourful graph.

Whether you are doing a prestart, risk assessment, interaction, investigation…whatever activity it might be, if you simply go from paper-based to tablet or desktop-based, you are not changing the activity or behaviour of a person and therefore should not expect any improvement. All you have done is purchase a faster horse…that’s assuming you don’t actually end up with a lame horse!

If you talk with a large enough number of companies, it won’t take long to realise that they all claim that they are innovative and that they are willing to try things and dare to be different with safety innovation. In reality though, very few companies are looking for the Ford Model T motor vehicle that came out on the first of October 1908.

So What Does The Model T Look Like In Today’s World?

The Model T motor vehicles are the ideas and technologies that are genuinely changing behaviour through innovation. The internet changed the worlds access to information, Google enabled people to find almost anything with the touch of a button, Facebook changed the way we socialise, Amazon changed the way we shop, the smartphone changed how we communicate and Tinder even changed the way we ‘meet people’ 😉. These are all great examples of true innovation as they changed behaviour, and I’d bet that when/if these companies first went out for market research they’d probably have received feedback that the world needed faster horses, not a new dating application with a swipe gesture. 

The last true movement from horse to car in the safety world was in 1930’s when the first job safety analysis were referred to and implemented by General Electric.

Guess what? 90 years later this is still the very same practice that we do today on either paper or digitally.  Some people and companies have simplified it by enabling a tick box exercise rather than writing what they are doing, yet the behaviour hasn’t changed a huge amount since this was introduced and then refined over the coming decades. 

Proof of the above is signified by the fact safety lag indicators have stagnated throughout all industries in recent decades and upper management is perplexed as to why things are not improving.  Companies are having more safety meetings, more paperwork is being filled out, we now have safe work method statements that have every risk and control in the industry, and yes still people are getting injured or killed. 

The problem is that none of these tools are actually changing behaviour and thus are simply just faster horses (or arguably slower horses).  Even when we have a look at the below pyramid of learning (image credit: Danilo Miskovic), what are we really achieving by adding more and more tools to the passive teaching methods model? Very little!

Safety Innovation - Learning PyramidReal Safety Innovation

In order to achieve true behavioural change in the safety industry, we need to look for and develop innovative tools that stimulate active teaching/learning methods.  RiskTalk is the new Model T Ford which is directed at capturing and engaging in group discussions, practice, and teaching others. 

Looking up (instead of head down in a paper form), having the conversation and truly being engaged in a risk management process is the only way that we will see true behavioural change and reduce fatal incidents and injuries in the workplace. Look for genuine safety innovation and find that that Model T Ford so you can send old processes to greener pastures.

Leave a Comment