Human Performance Improvement: “A Philosophy”


Domtar follows a new way of thinking about health and safety (H&S).

After positive H&S achievements in recent years, the "Human Performance Improvement" or HPI's approach, Domtar is looking at initiating changes to achieve significant results in the fight against human error. Mill managers from across the country have expressed interest.

Eric Ashby,
General Manager of the Domtar Windsor Mill and Chairman of PAPTAC’s Mill Managers Community.

Paper Advance (PA): Can you tell us more on "Human Performance Improvement" or HPI?

Eric Ashby (EA): Where does HPI come from? I am asked this question since we started talking about its in tegration at Domtar. It doesn't come from us but we want to apply it well! In a nutshell the approach is based on the fact that 80% of all accidents or unwanted outcomes are linked to human error. 70% of those errors are linked to organizational weaknesses. Adopting this way of thinking about H&S issues assumes that an organization is ready to recognize the institutional failings leading to such errors. Acknowledging this, we now aim at the minimization of undesired outcome linked to human errors while being able to adjust our organizational processes.

PA: HPI seems like an inspirational process rather than a program – where was it applied before appearing at Domtar's?

EA: The HPI addresses the roles of each employee, managers, and of the organization as a whole in improving performance in H&S. The earlier adopters of this approach were industries where unwanted outcomes where unthinkable such as in the nuclear industry. The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) summarized the approach in two handbooks freely available on the web. At Domtar, HPI also stems from a long-standing safety culture. We always involved employees in making our workplace safe. HPI is not a program, at least not the way Total Quality Management is. HPI is not a to-do list, nor a set of tools and techniques for continuous improvement. I call it a philosophy. A health and safety program is an explicit plan of action intended to stop or avoid accidents. HPI has a broader aim and is often associated with the concept of High Reliability Organizations or "HRO"1. We are not an HRO but we aspire to match these organizations' results in managing unwanted events.

PA: What was the motivating factor behind adopting this new approach?

EA: We are one of the top five companies of the sector in H&S performance and want to keep this distinction. Unfortunately, achieving good results in safety is an ever-going effort. I know it from working on the shop floor in various mills across Canada. One year the esults are great, the other, performance drops. The initiative was designed and pushed by the corporate safety department over the course of the last months. To assist us, we hired a human resources specialist involved in the Fukushima investigation and, to facilitate activities related to the training of Domtar HPI practitioners, we hired a specialized consultant who is very well versed with the language of HPI2. You can imagine this becomes essential with 10,000 employees – 8000 in the pulp and paper sector alone.
Our goal is to make sure our performance is sustained in time and we believe the approach will allow us to work towards it. Our 2015 H&S Plan is geared to decimate the HPI principles through all levels in the organization and, through evolutionary steps, move toward an HRO.
Each Domtar mill will implement the approach differently but our common goal is to move toward an HRO. Domtar recognizes that occupational H&S programs must by designed for the specific mill cultures using the HPI principles. This will assure that safety becomes not only a priority but a shared value.

Domtar Windsor 

PA: Tell us more on this HPI language.

EA: HPI is based on straightforward principles. They will appear perhaps obvious to health and safety professionals. This is their strength. Each reveals an underlying truth about human performance, in fact, a truth about human nature. The most important one: we are fallible! A study by NASA shows that under normal conditions, an employee will make on average five errors per hour. Of course, they are not all fatal but this proves a point. Accepting this, we encourage employees to identify weaknesses in the system. The traditional approach and the easiest way to deal with human error is to blame directly the worker that had an unwanted event. In fact, in a culture where blame is prevalent, most errors, or near misses, are left unreported. Applying this approach does not mean that we are not accountable for our actions. HPI focuses on separating voluntary versus involuntary undesirable acts by applying a substitution test.
HPI's underlying thinking is that human performance can only be realized when individuals at all levels in a company embrace a very basic concept: we all make mistakes and learning proves more constructive than blaming! This more humane way of considering errors makes it more comfortable for workers to report error-likely situations.
Of course, HPI principles must be integrated into management and leadership practices as well. Let me read them to you with the DoE's words:

1. "People are fallible, and even the best people make mistakes.
2. Error-likely situations are predictable, manageable, and preventable.
3. Individual behavior is influenced by organizational processes and values.
4. People achieve high levels of performance because of the encouragement and reinforcement received from leaders, peers, and subordinates.
5. Events can be avoided through an understanding of the reasons mistakes occur and application of the lessons learned from past events (or errors)".

PA: The third principle on "organizational processes" confronts Domtar accept that have flaws. How does management react to this?

EA: This is the scary part for companies. When you investigate a human error, organizations usually answer by providing more training to those responsible for the error. Usually disciplinary measures are also applied. Blaming may be easy for non-traditional HROs but you can easily imagine this cannot be done for a nuclear power plant where some types of errors can cost millions of lives! Yet, statistically, the majority of human errors are linked to latent organizational weaknesses.
As such, "HPI" is an acronym that places words on a shift in corporate paradigms. Through collaboration with everyone in our teams, we build systems that allow each of our facilities to benefit from continuous improvements. The systematic attitude encouraged by HPI, positions human error in a new perspective: human errors reflect deeper trouble in the system – we view it as a symptom.

PA: What are the challenges of integrating the HPI strategy?

EA: This year, we achieved a million hours without an accident. The H&S culture engrained in our processes pays off! In fact, 2014 is our best year ever in safety performance with a OSHA incident rate of 0.323. As this is the case in most pulp and paper companies, H&S knowledge is largely based on skills and since most mills are going through a phase of retirements, we are faced with the need to restore this knowledge for the younger generation. The reality we face is that by 2018, more than half of the current workforce will be gone. Of course, we can encourage a rule based H&S culture but experience shows this cannot be fully reliable. HPI is the glue that links every program together. In other words, it links the skill and rule based culture. We have a tendency to look at problems in silos; HPI is our means to avoid this!

PA: What is the difference between applying the HPI approach and the traditional "substitution test"?

EA: Since decades, in most companies, when an employee made a mistake, the managers would first target the worker that did the error. In HPI we apply a substitution test. The substitution test enquires whether it is possible for other employees that would be trained in doing the same task to make the same error within the context of the event that happened. HPI teaches that the context does not justify the behavior, it explains it. This is a way to determine if there was negligence from the worker behind the error investigated and mostly, if it is not the case, whether there is a latent organizational weakness that must be reviewed. A key component of HPI is the establishment of a culture that acknowledges companies must first learn rather than accuse. Is the human the error, or is the error human!

PA: In light of this could we consider HPI as a strategy as much as a philosophy?

EA: Yes, HPI is also a strategic approach. The key in forming this strategy is to design defenses that decrease the probability of unwanted outcomes. Our aim remains the identification and elimination of dormant organizational limitations or weaknesses. Amongst different error precursors we list the usual: complacency and overconfidence, poor explanations and direction, confusing procedures or time pressure.

PA: How does HPI translate into daily mill operations?

EA: Implementing a safety culture seems far from daily routine considerations. We all know this is not true but people always come back to this question: how does one operationalize a philosophy? Thinking doesn't preclude action! It has to be a top down approach and leadership has to show it is applying HPI principles in all its decisions. At the Windsor mill we are planning to train all our people in supervisory positions and modify some of our key processes to imbed the HPI principles.

PA: Do you envision HPI as becoming an industry standard?

EA: No, at least not in the foreseeable future. HPI has the potential to scare some organizations. Some find it overwhelming. Some believe it is too theoretical. Moreover, one thing is for sure, no company from the pulp and paper industry is an HRO! Our industry is at least ten years behind the nuclear industry. Why? Perhaps because the potential impacts of unwanted outcomes in our industry are less than the nuclear industry!

I encourage all mill managers and H&S professionals to read these DOE's handbooks. Consultants are prone to provide programs but this does not always come with the methods to sustain them. I see such programs as practical guidance for operatives. Making sure that people have a positive attitude towards safety should be at the foundation of every H&S strategy. For Domtar, HPI is a journey rather than a destination and, on the bumpy road to economic recovery, many companies may focus on the dashboard's blinking lights rather than on the driving. We decided to do both.

1 HROs are, typically, nuclear power plants, offshore platforms, aircraft carriers, etc.
2 Japanese nuclear accident in March 2011.
3 JTFR stands for « Total Frequency Rate », the number of recordable incidents per 100 employees.

Éric Ashby
is General Manager of the Domtar Windsor Mill and Chairman of PAPTAC’s Mill Managers Community.

He directly manages a team of about 820 employees. His experience with in Domtar started in 1997 and followed an early career with Repap in New Brunswick. Through the years, Eric Ashby worked with Domtar across Canada: Ottawa, Vancouver, Kamloops and Dryden.

He obtained an Executive MBA from the Queen’s School of Business in Ottawa and a Masters, Pulp and Paper Engineering from McGill University in Montreal.

Domtar Corporation designs, manufactures, markets and distributes a wide variety of fiber-based products including communication papers, specialty and packaging papers and absorbent hygiene products.
The foundation of its business is a network of world class wood fiber converting assets that produce papergrade, fluff and specialty pulps. The majority of its pulp production is consumed internally to manufacture paper and consumer products.
Domtar is the largest integrated marketer of uncoated freesheet paper in North America with recognized brands such as Cougar®, Lynx® Opaque Ultra, Husky® Opaque Offset, First Choice® and Domtar EarthChoice®. Domtar is also a leading marketer and producer of a broad line of incontinence care products marketed primarily under the Attends®, IncoPack and Indasec® brand names as well as baby diapers.
In 2014, Domtar had sales of $5.6 billion from some 50 countries. The Company employs approximately 9,800 people.

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