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Words, Words, Words. Complex — Not Complicated
Two recent posts generated some interesting and useful discussion. The first post was The Process Safety Professional. Part 8: Multi-Lingual HAZOPs. The second post was ChatGPT: What Is the Most Important Element in Process Safety Management. Although these posts were on separate topics, they share a common feature: the use of language.
In the multi-lingual post we suggested that process safety management activities — particularly hazards analyses — often use sophisticated language constructs that can be difficult to follow for someone who is not a native speaker. We used the following example:
What could happen?
What would be the consequences?
What should we do?
The ‘could-would-should’ construct is tricky, particularly for someone for whom English is a second language. (The same comment applies generally, of course. All languages possess complexities and subtleties that are difficult to follow for someone who is not a native speaker.) We, therefore, suggested that, if the hazards analysis team contains people who speak different languages, then it may be best to split into separate language groups.
The ChatGPT exercise was intriguing because we presented the software with a problem that is complex, not complicated. Process safety professionals are trained to handle complicated problems. For example, there may be multiple causes of an incident such as a fire or a tank overflow. But, by using techniques such as fault tree analysis, skilled professionals are able to analyze this complicated situation. They can also analyze the situation quantitatively, and so come up with appropriate responses. They can even talk about having “the right answer”.
However, complex problems are much more difficult to analyze. Indeed, they cannot be analyzed at all, at least in the classical sense. The question “What is the most important element of process safety management?” creates complexity. The response involves judgment, personal experience and even emotion. The components of complex systems interact with one another in ways that are difficult to understand or even identify. Moreover, these interactions are dynamic — the system is constantly adjusting to the different inputs. (To use a simple example, automobiles are complicated, traffic patterns are complex.)
From a process safety point of view, it is necessary to understand that complex systems involve the behavior of people, and the manner in which the people interact with one another. (This is why I argue that Employee Participation is “the most important” of the process safety elements.) It also means that, before addressing a process safety situation, the professional needs to figure out if that situation is complicated or complex.
As time permits, we will look at other language issues, such as the difference between problems and predicaments. These discussions can help us make the right decisions when it comes to designing and implementing a process safety program.
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