What is SUGAR all about?

In order to explain the behaviour of the characters in the film, the accident investigator refers several times to SUGAR. The SUGAR model was developed by organisational psychologists Dik Gregory and Paul Shanahan and underpins their book on which the film is based. A slightly fuller version of the model is shown here.

SUGAR behaviour model

It captures the idea that at each moment, busy people engaged in purposeful work try to act as efficiently as possible, but with sufficient thoroughness to ensure that they achieve their objectives without wasted effort. The idea of a trade-off between efficiency and thoroughness was introduced by Erik Hollnagel in 2009 in his book “The ETTO Principle: Efficiency-Thoroughness Trade-offs – Why Things That Go Right Sometimes Go Wrong”.

It is not possible to maximise efficiency and thoroughness at the same time since increasing efficiency (ie saving time, energy, materials or money) will always take time or attention away from the checking and auditing required to guarantee effectiveness and/or safety.

Given that people need to make constant trade-offs between efficiency and thoroughness, the question arises as to what influences their trade-off decisions, moment by moment.

What influences our actions?

The SUGAR model shows three key sources of influence for our trade-off decisions. It is these three sets of influences that give rise to the name of the model – SUGAR – as follows.

State – refers to the sum total of our current temporary state (levels of fatigue, stress, health, emotions, level of interest etc) together with our more permanent state (our personality, and long-standing cultural and ethnic backgrounds etc).

Understanding – includes the technical, social and cultural knowledge that allows us to carry out our tasks – often as team members – within the prevailing rules, regulations, procedures and social norms of our operational settings. Crucially, our knowledge and interpretation in these areas is governed by a large range of perceptual and cognitive biases that exert huge influence on our ability to make sense of things and to decide what is relevant. For example, we are prone to see what we expect to see and fail to pay any conscious attention to most information that is available; we are happy to jump to conclusions with scant evidence; we routinely base judgments on irrelevant information; having arrived at a decision, we are very reluctant to change our minds and maybe lose face; we assume others around us know what they are doing and tend to go along with them; we easily convince ourselves that past events were predictable in principle; and we tend to seek information to confirm we are right – which is usually a lot easier than testing whether we are right via disconfirming evidence. If you’d like a comprehensive list of these biases, Wikipedia lists over 100 here.

Goals – the aims we have, including our personal goals, our operational targets, and our organisational objectives. What these are, how clear we are about them, how much we want to achieve them, how conflicting they are and how we balance them will also affect our judgments of what is most important or most relevant at any particular moment.

The model depicts how the interaction of the factors producing our State, Understanding and Goals at any moment influences our Action (or decision) at that moment, and how this cycle then Repeats at the next moment.

The SUGAR model is a useful organising framework for understanding where purposeful human behaviour at work comes from. It may also be used to enhance accident investigation through a process called mindset analysis. You can find out more about mindset analysis here – www.gspartnership.co.uk/products.html

Putting SUGAR in our TEA

In the film, the accident investigator uses a further word trick, TEA, to suggest what can be done to increase our awareness of the constant influences on our behaviour. We can constantly re-calibrate our sense of risk with the actual risk we are taking by remembering to Test our assumptions, Examine the implications of those assumptions being wrong, and only then Act accordingly. With TEA, we can help decide the right trade-off between efficiency and thoroughness as we work through our operational lives.

Where is safety?

In the end it is all about realising that safety is not in the poster on the wall or in the safety handbook. Instead, it is a living thing that emerges moment by moment from our collective behaviour. The more we are aware of what influences the assumptions underlying our behaviour, and the more we learn to seek evidence for those assumptions, and further, the more we each recognise our responsibility for doing so, then the more effective we will be in creating safe systems of work for all.

OK, time for a tea break.