In 2002 the US JFCOM (Joint Forces Command) set up two teams to test the military capabilities of the US armed forces in its Millennium Challenge exercise: the blue team and the red team.

The blue team were given greater intellectual resources than perhaps any other army in history, and their depth of knowledge about the enemy was unprecedented. The red team, a band of radicals, were the enemy – commanded by Paul Van Riper a highly respected and distinguished retired Lieutenant General of the US Marine Corps.

Who won?

The red team defeated the blues in the first running of the exercise because Paul Van Ripper applied his skills, knowledge and experience gained in the combat zones of Korea and Vietnam to out-think and outflank the massed forces of the blue US super power, despite all their data, analysis, information and strategy.

Blue balloon floating above red balloonsThis begs the question: do we fail to acknowledge the skills, knowledge and experience of our people? Particularly those who are time-served or recognised professionals.

Do we wrap them in cotton wool for fear of the regulator coming down hard on our organisations if something goes wrong?

Another example might help reinforce the point

Brendan Reilly, chairman of the Emergency Department at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago, asked a group of doctors, with different experience, to assess 20 cases and estimate on a scale of 1-100 the likelihood that a patient would have suffered a heart attack. There was no consensus, with assessments ranging widely.

He found that the amount of information the doctors were using to come to a decision clouded their initial assessments and intuition, diverting attention away from the few critical factors needed for a sound decision. Reilly’s solution was to spend a years crystallizing those key factors and removing all the extraneous information.

So perhaps there’s an argument for stripping down our policies, procedures, safe systems of work and risk assessments. Instead, we could focus people on the consequences of not applying the few critical safe behaviours required to prevent harm, and leave some room for professional judgement?

I challenge you now to look at your organisation’s policy documentation. Count how many policies, procedures and other safety related documents there are, then ask yourself: is it possible for people to grasp even a small number of them?

I know of organisations with over a thousand such documents, and a conservative estimate suggests that even an avid reader might take up to four months, 9-5, every day to get through them all!


William A Owen, Lifting the Fog of War
American Journal of Medicine 112 (2002) 95-103
Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Penguin 2005