How to Let Small Things Bother You

By Jon Miller Updated on February 19th, 2022

An interesting New York Times article points out how many of us have become desensitized to the dangers of this pandemic over the past couple of years. This is due to the constant alarm bells that ring, without always seeing real danger up close. Ironically, this type of mild, repeated exposure is how therapists help people overcome their phobias.

By the same mechanism, it can make us less afraid of things that we should be concerned about. The article argues that people have been conditioned to stop fearing Covid-19 due to many real and false alarms.

The seemingly constant flow of emergency alerts has dulled many people’s fear response to this pandemic, leading them to let down their guard, relax their restrictions or masking habits, or even refuse potentially lifesaving vaccines.

The article largely argues for making changes to how we communicate the risks and actions people can take. While fear can be effective for motivating one-time actions, it’s less effective for changing or supporting long-term behaviors. Effective persuasion requires more. A lot has been written on behavior change. It’s challenging because it’s both personal and cultural. It requires both the swimmer and the water to change.

Your Culture Is What You Tolerate

It’s easy for people to become desensitized to safety or other risks within organizations. We become numb to dirty machines, unsafe working spaces, colleagues or bosses who are disrespectful, or near-misses with patient safety. The progressive ignoring of potential or real harms turns abnormalities into accepted norms. This tacit understanding and tolerance of behavior shapes culture. The persistence of such conditions erodes confidence, performance, profit and becomes a self-reinforcing loop that’s difficult to escape.

When we see leaders walk past disorganized work areas, step over a patch of grease on the warehouse floor, or look past a bin full of defects without acting with concern, it sends a signal to the organization. It says what’s important and what’s not. This is why the “go to gemba” principle is so important. On most trips to our gemba, we will find some part of our workplace that us in poor condition, if we look take time to notice. Every trip that doesn’t result in a discussion of that poor condition can desensitize us further. If it was okay to walk past and say nothing last time, why point it out this time?

This is why lean thinkers often ask, “What bothers you?” When we strive to serve customers better through continuous improvement, there should always be something that leaves us dissatisfied.

How to Raise Awareness of Safety Risks

There’s a simple but effective practice that organizations have practiced in one form or another to raise awareness of safety risks. This begins with near misses, or instances when we noticed something bad that almost happened, but didn’t. Studies show that for every 300 or so near misses or very minor incidents, there’s a more serious lost time accident. One method to raise awareness of near-misses is hiyari hatto.

The Japanese word hiyari describes the cold feeling we get when we experience something frightening. We can all relate to the feeling of, “Whoa, that was close.”  Perhaps we almost dropped a mug onto the kitchen floor. Our heart may skip a beat. We may feel a chill. This is part of a normal physiological reaction. It’s the result of a combination of stress hormones preparing us for fight-or-flight and blood moving from skin, fingertips, etc to our vital organs and brain, where it’s more useful in a crisis. When our body senses danger, real or otherwise, it gives us a “hiyari” feeling of cold.

The “ha” part of the word hatto refers to the sound we make when we gasp, or make an intake of breath when frightened or surprised. Both of these are involuntary reactions. The gasps and chills are our body’s way of preparing us for danger, real or imagined. We shouldn’t ignore the feelings of hiyari and hatto just because the danger has passed. The conditions that created the near-miss remain and must be addressed.

How to Let Small Things Bother You

In the hiyari hayatto approach to addressing safety near-misses, people are encouraged to report when they saw or felt something unsafe almost happened. People report their concerns to a body responsible for addressing or investigating them, such as a safety committee. A committee takes or guides actions to make quick fixes, evaluates conditions around more serious dangers, or looks for ways to prevent near-misses from reoccurring.

This type of program reduces the threshold of reporting to the lowest reasonable level. People aren’t limited to actual incidents experienced or witnessed. Whatever makes us gasp, sends a chill down your spine or say, whoops! is fair game. The first step is setting up a hiyari hayatto committee who will collect and take this feedback seriously. It’s a good way to enable everyone to participate in building a culture of safety.

The key to an approach like hiyari hatto is that it welcomes people’s feelings. Our impressions and subjective experiences about near misses are often revealing. We may learn that a workplace or process that we designed to be safe may feel unsafe to others. A person may be afraid of something for no good reason, or be bold in the face of known dangers. There is a way to avoid desensitization from constant safety first! slogans or from stepping over yet another banana peel. This is to set up a system to let small things bother you, even if it’s only a feeling.

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