Synesis

Synesis

The search for a proper term or word to replace 'Safety-II', in order to avoid the problems that arise because 'safety' is a homonym, has looked far and wide.

  • One suggestions was the work safeness. Although this looked attractive at first glance, it still retained the meaning of 'safe', i.e., that meaning that it is a condition where one is without harm.
  • Another suggestion was the neologism synactivity, meaning the synthesis of activities that is necessary in order that today's socio-technical systems can function as intended and desired. Although not unrelated to the proposed definition of safety synthesis (as the system quality that ensures that things go right, cf. Hollnagel, 2014), it avoids the connocations of safety, as the term is normally used.

Safe comes from the French word sauf, which means without, which in turn comes from the Latin word salvus, which means intact or whole. The meaning of 'safe' is thus 'without' harm or injury. One possibility is therefore to find a term that means 'with' - not as in 'with harm and injury' but as in 'with positive or desired outcomes'.

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 is used to describe a grammatical construction, the term makes sense in relation to Safety-II. Synesis can be defined as the condition where multiple activities are made to work together to bring about the intended outcome in an effective way.

  • The individual activities may be partly incongruous or conflicting, but the difficulties are overcome by synesis.
  • The effectiveness in bringing about the intended outcome means that it is done efficiently (with a reasonable use of resources), reliably (it is highly predictable), and with acceptable quality.

Many domains, health care being a prominent example but by no means the only one, conflate the terms 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 understandd all of what is going on. 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 synthesis 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 functions 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 also 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.

(c) Erik Hollnagel, 2017

SafetySynthesis is registered as a company in Denmark (Cvr-nr.: 35126910)