Drift into Failure: From Hunting Broken Components to Understanding Complex Systems

Author(s): Sidney Dekker


What does the collapse of sub-prime lending have in common with a broken jackscrew in an airliner's tailplane? Or the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico with the burn-up of Space Shuttle Columbia? These were systems that drifted into failure. While pursuing success in a dynamic, complex environment with limited resources and multiple goal conflicts, a succession of small, everyday decisions eventually produced breakdowns on a massive scale. We have trouble grasping the complexity and normality that gives rise to such large events. We hunt for broken parts, fixable properties, people we can hold accountable. Our analyses of complex system breakdowns remain depressingly linear, depressingly componential - imprisoned in the space of ideas once defined by Newton and Descartes. The growth of complexity in society has outpaced our understanding of how complex systems work and fail. Our technologies have gotten ahead of our theories. We are able to build things - deep-sea oil rigs, jackscrews, collateralized debt obligations - whose properties we understand in isolation. But in competitive, regulated societies, their connections proliferate, their interactions and interdependencies multiply, their complexities mushroom. This book explores complexity theory and systems thinking to understand better how complex systems drift into failure. It studies sensitive dependence on initial conditions, unruly technology, tipping points, diversity - and finds that failure emerges opportunistically, non-randomly, from the very webs of relationships that breed success and that are supposed to protect organizations from disaster. It develops a vocabulary that allows us to harness complexity and find new ways of managing drift.


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Sidney Dekker is Professor of Human Factors and System Safety at Lund University, Sweden and Director of Research at the Leonardo Da Vinci Center for Complexity and Systems Thinking. He gained his Ph.D. in Cognitive Systems Engineering from The Ohio State University, USA and has worked in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and England. Sidney has been a Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and Visiting Academic in the Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Monash University in Melbourne. He is scientific advisor on healthcare system safety to the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and Professor of Community Health Science at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, in Canada. Sidney's research interests include system safety, human error, reactions to failure, and organizational resilience. His recent books include "Ten Questions About Human Error: A New View of Human Factors and System Safety" (2005), "The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error" (2006), and "Just Culture: Balancing Safety and Accountability" (2007). Sidney also flies the Boeing 737NG part time as airline pilot. He is a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The OSU Foundation in the United States awards a yearly Sidney Dekker Critical Thinking Award.

Preface; Failure is always an option; Features of drift; The legacy of Newton and Descartes; The search for the broken component; Theorizing drift; What is complexity and systems thinking?; Managing the complexity of drift; Index.

General Fields

  • : 9781409422211
  • : CRC Press LLC
  • : CRC Press LLC
  • : February 2011
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Sidney Dekker
  • : Paperback
  • : 234