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PT Notes

Guidelines for 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 third in a series on creative thinking, a critical skill for process safety practitioners.

Parts 1 and 2 of this series addressed how to approach creative thinking in addressing process safety elements and how to overcome obstacles to creative thought. This PT Note provides guidelines for thinking creatively when addressing process safety elements such as process hazard analysis (PHA).

Make time and eliminate distractions

Quiet time is needed to think, imagine, and reflect and a conducive environment is required. For example, PHA teams should be allowed time to ponder questions posed by the facilitator or other team members. Short periods of silence are acceptable when team members are thinking. Teams should meet in an environment free from distractions, such as interruptions by managers, and a location that is quiet.

Use lateral thinking

Lateral thinking focuses on breaking out of the constraints and patterns of entrenched ways of thinking. It is non-sequential and non-selective in contrast to vertical thinking which is sequential and selective.

Lateral thinking involves various techniques such as pausing in a deliberate proactive effort to think creatively for a set period of time and focusing on a particular aspect of an issue. Also included is creatively challenging why something exists as it does or is done the way it is to push thinking beyond blind acceptance and towards thoughtful consideration so that other ways of doing things can be considered.

For example, a PHA team may be discussing the adequacy of process safeguards for a hazard scenario and appear willing to accept the adequacy of the administrative safeguards that protect against the scenario. In such a situation, it is important that the facilitator or a team member ask whether there is a better means of providing protection, for example, with an engineered safeguard. Blind acceptance of what has been accepted previously must be avoided.

Pose questions with some ambiguity

Many questions are posed during creative thinking. Care should be exercised not to ask only questions that are highly specific as they can stifle imagination. For example, during an incident investigation the question may be posed, “Did the operator forget to close the valve because they were distracted?” A better question is “What factors may have caused the operator to forget to close the valve?”.

Maintain focus on the issue while generating ideas

It is easy to become distracted when thinking creatively about an issue and digress into thinking about other issues. A focus should be maintained on the issue at hand while avoiding constraining the generation of ideas relating to the issue.

For example, while brainstorming the causes of a hazard scenario in a PHA study, team members may digress to discuss safeguards that protect against a suggested cause. The facilitator should keep their focus on identifying causes and return later to address the safeguards.

Don’t overlook the value of the intuitive hunch

The human mind constantly records, connects, and stores knowledge, experiences, and feelings. The brain can synthesize this information without conscious effort and present it as an idea that emerges from the subconscious. The person feels intuitively that the idea may be a good one but cannot immediately justify it. The idea is viewed as a hunch and the person is not sure where it came from. However, hunches derive from a lifetime of experience and should not be ignored.

For example, a PHA team member may make a suggestion they believe is pertinent to an issue at hand but another team member challenges its validity. The first team member may not be able to immediately justify the suggestion but that should not be used as grounds for dismissing it. The suggestion should still receive serious consideration and the team member should be allowed time to collect their thoughts on why their suggestion is valid.

Be alert for fringe thoughts

When trying to think creatively about an issue, human cognitive processes sometimes present a thought that seems elusive and on the edge of consciousness. It is worth spending time to pin down the thought as the brain is trying to address the issue by taking advantage of information that has been accumulated over the lifetime of the person and distilling it into something relevant.

For example, a PHA facilitator may notice that a team member is having difficulty expressing an idea. This may be an indicator that the person is synthesizing information in their brain. They should be allowed time for their thoughts to gel.

Be alert to kernels of ideas expressed by others

Brainstorming in a team involves people offering up their ideas. One person may not believe an offered solution to a problem will work but sometimes there is an aspect of the proposal that triggers the thought of a more promising alternative. Creative thinking can be jump started in this way.

Commonly, this phenomenon occurs in PHA studies when one team member says, in response to a suggestion by another team member, “I am not sure about that but what about ...”.

Look for cross-fertilization of ideas

An idea from one situation may be applicable to another so that thinking by analogy can be valuable. Ideas have to be original only in their adaptation to a new situation. For example, knowledge of incidents in other companies can be used to identify ways to prevent incidents in your own company.

Shift attention from one aspect of an issue to another

Difficulty may be experienced in working one aspect of an issue. Another aspect may be more amenable to solution. For example, when exploring how to reduce risks for a process, a PHA team may apply the hierarchy of controls and focus initially on inherently safer technologies but none may be workable. Shifting attention to the use of other approaches such as engineered safeguards may prove more fruitful.

Look at an issue from other points of view

Adoption of a different perspective or considering the issue in a different context can generate new ideas. Reversing the initial viewpoint taken also can be valuable, otherwise solutions outside your focus may be missed. For example, shifting the focus from how to mitigate a runway chemical reaction to how to prevent it may allow the problem of managing the risk of a runway chemical reaction to be replaced by the better solution of changing the reaction chemistry to avoid a runway should that prove possible.

Be aware that the need to satisfy constraints can spark creativity

Time or other resource limitations can provide a stimulus and force thinking beyond conventional solutions. Of course, such constraints can also impair thinking so care must be exercised when constraints exist. A case in point is during PHA studies where time limitations may constrain brainstorming and result in a poor quality study.

However, a PHA facilitator may be able to stimulate creative thinking, for example, when identifying the causes of a hazard scenario by saying to the team “We have 15 minutes left in this session to finish the causes of high temperature for this node”. The time pressure may act to stimulate the team provided it does not instead cause them to simply abandon their efforts.

Allow time for the incubation of ideas

Stepping back from a problem allows the big picture to be seen. Ideas can germinate, assumptions can be queried, and more information can be developed. For example, an important question for a PHA facilitator to ask at the beginning of study sessions is, “Has anyone had further thoughts about what we covered in the last session?”. It is not unusual to have team members provide additional valuable information for the study.

Pay attention to anomalies in situations

An aspect of a situation may have been overlooked, perhaps because the aspect was a minor one and there was no obvious explanation for it. However, careful examination of such anomalies may lead to new ideas that have been overlooked by others.

For example, during an incident investigation of a reactivity incident, an investigator may notice unusual deposits inside a reaction vessel. On questioning the operators, it may be determined they were aware deposits formed in the reactor but did not know the reason and had not discussed the matter with the process engineer who, it may be determined, was unaware of the deposits. Further investigation may determine that a previously unknown side reaction occurred and caused the runaway.

Don’t let the obvious escape your attention

Anything we take for granted may evade our attention. One way to address this matter is to explain a problem or issue to someone who knows nothing about it when unrecognized ideas may become obvious.

For example, a PHA team member who is an experienced engineer but who is not familiar with the process being studied likely will ask questions not posed by other team members. In answering such questions, it is not unusual for the other team members to discover an unrecognized problem because they now see the process in a new light.

Foster enjoyment of problem solving

An enjoyable approach to critical thinking lowers people’s defences making them more inclined to experimentation and the exploration of issues. Also, it provides a license to try different approaches without fear of penalty and makes for a more productive thinking environment.

For example, during an incident investigation, an investigator may suggest the use of a tool the investigation team has not used before, such as accimaps. The new tool is received well by the other investigators and they gain considerable enjoyment in using it and generate valuable insights into the incident.

Recognize that humor facilitates creative thinking

Humor puts people in a frame of mind conducive to thinking about issues. Also, humor allows matters to be taken less seriously which makes it easier to challenge rules.

Comedians take a different perspective on a topic than their audience, often by combining ideas not usually associated with each other, and they play the role of an outside observer looking in. Also, comedians question authority and challenge assumptions. These various aspects of humor are valuable for thinking creatively.

Recognize that the hand stimulates the brain

Studies have shown that activating basic motor functions can improve mental performance. Consequently, some creative thinkers manipulate a ball or other object when thinking. Some PHA facilitators provide objects for team members to manipulate.

Employ a devil’s advocate

A devil’s advocate constructively challenges the thinking of others. They help to put issues in a fresh light and stimulate thinking. Devil’s advocates try to think of different interpretations, question what others take for granted, reverse assumptions, and ask the apparently stupid questions that no one else will ask but that can yield good ideas.

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