Preventing Major Disasters: Success and Failure as Two Sides of the Same Coin

Jan Hayes, Sarah Maslen

Research output: A Conference proceeding or a Chapter in BookChapterpeer-review


Failures of complex socio-technical systems such as aircraft crashes, oil well blowouts and nuclear power station accidents are to be avoided given the potential for deaths, environmental damage and financial costs, and yet research suggests that lessons from past failures are often not well learned. Based on interviews with employees in companies that operate such hazardous technologies, this chapter investigates learning from failures by considering two disparate attitudes to failure observed among engineers and senior managers. An engineering approach to performance improvement values failure and seeks to learn everything possible from it. This positive value placed on failure contrasts with a managerial approach founded in the concept of continuous improvement. In this relativist frame of reference, organisations never experience failure, but rather performance that can be improved from what is characterised as almost-perfect performance. Top management views on failure are both the result of and a contributor to an environment in which organisational success and failure are seen as opposites, rather than close relations. Until organisations see success and failure as two sides of the same coin and arising from the same set of organisational practices, we are unlikely to make further progress in preventing industrial disasters.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge International Handbook of Failure
Editors Adriana Mica, Mikołaj Pawlak, Anna Horolets, Paweł Kubicki
Place of PublicationLondon
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9780429355950
ISBN (Print)9780367404048
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2023


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