Synesis

Synesis

The terms Safety-I and Safety-II have been useful to make the point, that it is possible to look at safety from different perspectives. The problem, however, is that the meaning of the word "safety" in Safety-II has little to do with the traditional interpretation of safety. (See the entries on "Safety as a homonym" and "Homonym-synonym" on this website.) It would therefore be useful to find a term that on the one hand represents what the Safety-II perspective represents but on the other avoides the use of the six letters "safety". Luckily, such a term exists. It is synesis.

The meaning of synesis is to bring (something) together to that gives meaning.

  • Synesis is a traditional grammatical/rhetorical term derived from Greek σύνεσις (originally meaning "unification, meeting, sense, conscience, insight, realization, mind, reason"). (Source: Wikipedia.)

Although synesis technically describes a grammatical construction, the original meaning of unification makes sense in relation to meaning of Safety-II. The efforts to ensure that work goes well and that the number of acceptable outcomes is as high as possible requries a unification of priorities, of perspectives, and of practices. Synesis represents the condition where multiple practices are brought together to produce the intended outcomes in a way that satisfies multiple priorities - or at least more than one priority - and that combines - or reconciles - multiple perspectives.

  • The individual activities may be partly incongruous or even conflicting when looked at from a single perspective, but the difficulties are overcome by synesis.
  • The intended outcome are produced in a way that satisfies multiple priorities such as efficiency (with a reasonable use of resources), reliability (it is highly predictable), quality, sustainability, etc.

Many domains, health care being a prominent example but by no means the only one, conflate terms such as safety and quality. In some cases quality is seen as a component of safety, and in other cases the opposite relation is assumed to hold. The same goes for safety and productivity, productivity and quality, and so on. We can look at a process or work situation from a safety point of view, from a quality point of view, from a productivity point of view, etc. But in each case we should keep in mind that any specific perspective only reveals part of what is going on, and that it simportant to understand what goes on as a whole. The problems in using a specific term are brought to the fore in the discussion of Safety-I and Safety-II, since 'safety' actually means different things in the two cases (q.v.). The term synsis oversomes this problem.

The meaning of synesis is the unification of activities that is necessary in order that today's socio-technical systems can function as intended and desired. Thus, if we speak of the synesis of a clinic, or of a construction site, we mean the mutually dependent set of priorities, perspectives, and practices that is necessary for the workplace to carry out its activities as intended with respect to a set of relevant criteria (safety, quality, productivity, etc.).

If synesis is what we achieve, analogous to safety, then we may eventually need a word to describe the study and development of synesis - how we can bring about or increase the 'level' of synesis. (Safety, strangely enough, has no such term but simply refers to safety science, safety management, etc.) There are two possible candidates that both follow 'logically' from synesis. One is the word synetics (or perhaps synethics). The other is the word syntology.

As one should expect, synesis, synetics and syntology are already in use, although with different meanings. There are even websites and businesses that use the terms. But that does not preclude yet another use of the terms, especially if it is given a clear, operational definition. And σύνεσις being a grammatical term, is definitely in the public domain.

(c) Erik Hollnagel. Created October 2, 2015. Revised November 19, 2017.

(c) Erik Hollnagel, 2017

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