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PT Notes

Creative Thinking in Process Safety

PT Notes is a series of topical technical notes on process safety provided periodically by Primatech for your benefit. Please feel free to provide feedback.

This PT Note is the first in a series on creative thinking, a critical skill for process safety practitioners.

Creative thinking is needed when addressing many process safety elements. It is essential during process hazard analysis (PHA) studies where participants brainstorm what can go wrong. Also, it is important for other elements such as incident investigation, procedure writing, management of change reviews, and developing emergency response plans.

Creative thinking is deeper than routine thinking. Almost everyone is born with a capacity for creative thought but it atrophies as a result of formal education that discourages it. Also, many people don’t need to be creative for much of what they do in daily life and therefore may not be practiced in creative thinking. However, creative thinking is a skill that can be learnt and guidance can be provided for ways in which creative thinking can be approached by anyone when the need arises.

Creative thinking uses inventiveness to generate ideas that have not been thought of before. It requires original and imaginative thinking that is associated with divergent, lateral, or out-of-the box thought. Creative thinkers ask questions of themselves and others including:

• What if?
• Why?
• Why not?
• How?
• How else?

“What if” questions are particularly important because they allow the suspension of assumptions that may be held by people and that constrain thought. Some examples of questions asked by creative thinkers are:

• How else can I view or consider this issue?
• What alternatives might there be?
• Is there anything I / we haven’t yet considered?
• What other ways might there be to do that?
• Where else can we get more information?
• Who else has a suggestion?
• How can something happen? (Rather than whether it can)

The kinds of questions asked are important. Good questions encourage exploration, open minds to possibilities, encourage curiosity, and prompt imagination. Good questions probe the heart of an issue, cause others to think differently, and are open-ended allowing more than one answer. The ability to ask such questions is a goal for all creative thinkers.

Some examples of process safety questions are:

• What if we relocate the relief valves outside the building?
• Why consider a safety instrumented system failure to be a near miss?
• Why not allow senior operators to train new operators?
• How can we avoid a runway reaction?
• How else can the pump fail?

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