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PT Notes

Overcoming Obstacles to 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 second in a series on creative thinking, a critical skill for process safety practitioners.

Part 1 of this series addressed how to approach creative thinking in addressing process safety elements, such as process hazard analysis (PHA). This PT Note describes common obstacles to creative thinking and provides suggestions for overcoming them.

Searching for the “right” answer

Educational systems are geared to teaching people to find the correct answer. This is a universal experience for engineers and it becomes deeply ingrained in our thinking. The approach is fine for problems that have only one correct answer but many real-world problems have many “right” answers. Unfortunately, if people believe there is only one correct answer, they will stop looking as soon as they have found one because most people don’t like facing problems and usually go with their first answer. Owing to this human tendency, there may be other, more promising solutions to the problem that are missed.

One way to address this obstacle is to set a quota for alternatives when thinking creatively about an issue and to keep looking for ideas until the quota has been reached. For example, when investigating incidents there can be a temptation for investigators to jump to a conclusion regarding the cause of an incident because of a strong desire to know what went wrong. However, the temptation must be resisted and all possible causes identified before conclusions are drawn.

Assuming limitations that are not there

Sometimes people make invalid assumptions about a situation and proceed to address a problem assuming constraints that do not actually exist. As a result, they may not develop an optimum solution to the problem. For example, when faced with the prospect of reducing the risk from a runway reaction in a vessel, it may be assumed that no amount of pressure relief on the vessel will be adequate and, consequently, a reaction kill system is needed. However, while the assumption may be valid in many cases, it is possible that the reaction kinetics and heat and mass balances in the particular case invalidate the assumption and make pressure relief viable.

Creative thinkers must always look for assumptions in their thinking, stated or unstated, and challenge them.

Following rules

There is considerable societal pressure to follow rules, including ones that are unwritten. People feel more comfortable following rules than challenging them. However, this inclination on the part of people encourages thinking about things as they are, not as they could be.

For example, in one process the operators transferred material from one tank to another, allowed it to sit for an hour, and then transferred it back. This operation was creating difficulties and a solution to the problem was needed. After some investigation, it emerged that this unwritten rule originated when different materials had been used in the process some years before but a change had been made and the requirement for the transfer operation was no longer needed.

Creative thinkers must identify and challenge rules that control a situation. A creative solution may be found by successfully breaking rules or escaping from obsolete rules. Of course, rule breaking must not be illegal, immoral, or unethical.

Emotional blocks

Emotional blocks to creative thinking occur when feelings inhibit clear thinking, such as anger and fear. Anger must dissipate before creative thinking is possible. For example, if PHA team discussions become heated, it is a good idea to call a break.

The fear of being wrong also may impact PHA studies. One experienced PHA facilitator once stated that he always had a recently graduated engineer on his study teams because they could be relied upon to ask the “stupid” questions that more experienced team members would not ask and often it was the “stupid” questions that led to the discovery of serious hazards.

Creative thinkers must be comfortable with errors. Most people are inclined to try to avoid errors. However, such an inclination produces conservative thinking that impairs creative thinking. To err is not wrong in the context of creative thinking. It is acceptable to err intelligently.

People must avoid falling in love with ideas. Becoming enamored of a particular idea can be a problem. The person then is unable to see the merits of alternative ideas. It is important for people to challenge their own ideas. They should not be immune from self-criticism.

Polarizing blocks

Polarizing blocks cause people to see matters in terms of opposites. It is black and white, either / or thinking. Different types of polarization are possible, for example, us versus them, for or against, and right or wrong. Polarizing blocks can be addressed by asking “to what extent is ...” or stating “yes, but ...” or “no, but ...”.

For example, a finding that a proposed process change may increase risk should not be met with insistence by management that the change must proceed for operational reasons. Rather, an appropriate response is “to what extent is the risk increased and what can we do about it” or “yes, but isn’t there something we can do to manage the increased risk”.

Cognitive biases

Cognitive biases are unconscious, automatic influences on human judgment and decision making that can interfere with clear thinking and cause reasoning errors. They occur commonly and can impair creative thinking.

For example, habits of thought involve the unconscious tendency to limit ideas to common, familiar, habitual responses. Uncommon or unfamiliar ideas are blocked out. Habits of thought can be addressed by forcing oneself to keep thinking of ideas to address a problem or issue so that the habitual ideas are flushed out and creative ones can emerge.

By way of example, a number of separate oil spill incidents occurred in Alaska involving storage tanks with drain valves that were inexplicably opened. Various explanations were considered, such as mechanical failure and vandalism. However, eventually it was discovered that pieces of ice resulting from frozen snow had fallen from the top of the tanks and hit the horizontal handles of the valves. Identification of such unusual release mechanisms certainly requires habits of thought to be overcome.

Many other cognitive biases exist. For example, groupthink involves people sharing common but possibly false beliefs, or causes members of a group to be more concerned about the approval of other group members than trying to come up with new ideas. Individuals may be affected by mindsets where they hold assumptions that are so established they do not recognize they exist. Such cognitive biases impair creative thinking.

People should always look at situations from a different viewpoint when thinking creatively. A devil’s advocate can be employed to challenge the position taken by a person or group and help them to recognize the influence of cognitive biases.

Objections to new ideas

People tend to be critical when looking at new ideas. Unfortunately, some common attitudes can kill ideas. For example, creative thinkers may be admonished to be practical or realistic. A better response to an initial idea that is viewed as impractical is to inquire where it might lead in order to identify ideas of greater practicality. For example, a process safety incident that involves piping failure may prompt a recommendation to perform non-destructive testing for all piping in a process. However, further discussion may recognize that the failure arose from external corrosion and an alternative recommendation to employ visual inspection may be sufficient.

Use of the “creative no” can be useful. If someone objects to an idea, they have to come up with another one. When creative thinkers are told their idea won’t work or they can’t do it that way, an appropriate response is to ask, “why not?” followed by “what if ...?”.

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