November 20, 2023

Insights from Insights23: Human Factors and the Probation Journey to Becoming a Learning Organisation

Melanie Pearce
Head of Organisational Change
Probation Change, HMPPS

Melanie Pearce (Head of Organisational Change, Probation Change), Laura Dunn (Head of Stakeholder Engagement, Probation Wales), and Claire Presley (Human Factors Programme Manager), reflect on sharing their learning and feedback through their online event at Insights23.

One of the things we all have in common is thinking errors! These are essential for our survival and most of the time serve us well. But when we are stressed, work in complex environments or with high workloads, they can be counterproductive. This is a lesson we can take from Human Factors. Human Factors is a multi-disciplinary science established in many industries worldwide, and some UK Government departments, where safety is critical.

A culture of safety where people feel safe to report mistakes and seek to understand and learn from them is essential. Focusing not just on how we are instructed to do things, but also on how we actually do them, is critical in understanding why failures occur and how we can avoid them in future. This can help develop error wisdom, reduce the severity of errors by identifying risks before they cause harm, accepting that we will never eradicate error as humans will always make mistakes.

Insights23 provided a great opportunity to engage with colleagues across the Criminal Justice Sector about the Human Factors evidence base, learning from other safety critical industries, and how we have applied it to Probation Service operations, through the Learning Organisation Approach in Wales Probation. Insights23 gave us the opportunity to share our learning, early findings and indications of success and impact, and feedback from colleagues.

The learning organisation approach

Our approach is underpinned by Human Factors principles and developed for the Probation Service to enable an open learning culture. It has five strands:

  • using the Culture Maturity Matrix, developed by Professor Sanjay Bhasin to determine a baseline so we can measure cultural progression
  • ensuring all staff understand the “bigger picture” of what changes mean for their region, team and them as individuals through regular updates
  • enabling cultural leadership at all levels
  • creating a shared mental model
  • operational application of human factors

Tools are designed to overcome thinking errors, promote psychological safety, and develop healthy workplace behaviours. They include structured communication tools to capture risk and improve communication. Two further applications are purpose built to address the operational complexities of the Probation Service, whilst remaining true to the evidence base, which:

  • encourage the use of daily team briefings to identify priorities, risks, and barriers, focussing on wellbeing and recognising achievements
  • create escalation and feedback loops to overcome what gets in the way of teams being successful
  • create dedicated protected time for managers for non-emergency conversations. This mitigates the effect of pressure on behaviours, communication and decision making
  • slow down thinking time to improve the quality of information sharing and decision making

Over the last 12 months we have implemented the approach across all operational and non-operational teams and at all levels in Wales Probation.

Early feedback from Wales Probation

Introducing the approach has helped us drive a positive culture with learning at its heart.  We encourage learning when things go wrong and celebrate successes, sharing learning across the region.  A predictable structure is now in place for teams to have good quality, solution-focussed discussions with their line managers.  This drives professional autonomy,, and ensures everyone has a voice. It also creates time and space for our middle leaders and has played a key role in managing business risk, increased reporting of risks/near misses​ and swift identification of practice concerns.

We have had some very positive feedback from colleagues: 

"The quality of the management conversations are so much better" - Senior Probation Officer

"Protected hour is a massive help for me. Changed my day and made quality of my management interactions so much better" - Business Manager

"Managing the demands on the team and prioritising tasks helps to alleviate stress and anxiety improving overall well-being whilst ensuring we are functioning and responding to critical work" - Probation Delivery Unit Head

"I don’t go straight to my line manager anymore. I think and explore, use my own knowledge, and solve issues. I think my manager appreciates that; they aren’t always having to be interrupted for non-emergency issues" - Probation Practitioner

"It doesn’t take away the ‘workload’ or ‘pressure we feel’ but it makes it more transparent" - Probation Practitioner

"It’s injected an energy into staff...Highlighting the importance of teams speaking the truth and owning mistakes...Mangers and leaders providing a safe non-judgmental space to empower staff" -Department Head

"I’m making better safer decisions. I can understand the case issues better"- Senior Probation Officer

The work in Wales has generated significant interest from within the Probation Service, Headquarters, wider HMPPS, and our regulatory body. Our event was designed to complement Professor Sanjay Bhasin’s: The Benefits of HMPPS Becoming a Learning Organisation.

Next Steps 

We expect the evaluation to conclude in March 2024. We intend take the approach to another probation region before considering wider roll out. 

More information

An example of Human Factors in health care: The measurement and monitoring of safety - The Health Foundation 

Like what you've read? Help spread the word!