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Get Creative with Process Safety Management


Creative thinking is a necessary skill in process safety. While most people are born with the capacity for creative thinking, this skill can be lost through formal education and societal pressures that discourage it. Luckily, creative thinking can be learned.

Creative thinking is an important, albeit often overlooked, skill for many process safety management (PSM) activities, such as conducting process hazard analysis (PHA) studies, incident investigations, and management-of-change (MOC) reviews, writing procedures, and developing emergency response plans. Despite its importance, creative thinking is not necessarily encouraged or cultivated during the formal education process.

Although empirical evidence suggests that some people may be more gifted or predisposed to think creatively, the prevailing view is that we can all learn to think creatively. Many studies have been conducted and published — providing a large resource from which to extract guidance on creative thinking.

This article provides suggestions, guidelines, and strategies gleaned from the literature that can help you employ creative thinking in process safety.

The nature of creative thinking

Creative thinking engages your imagination to generate new ideas or new ways of looking at a situation. It requires divergent, lateral, out-of-the box, and out-of-the rut thinking. Creative thinking involves:

  • perceiving layers of detail
  • asking many types of questions
  • identifying relationships among elements and determining how they fit together
  • noticing connections between the current situation of interest and prior knowledge and experience
  • developing interpretations based on observations
  • reflecting, assessing, and revising.

Creative thinkers ask questions of themselves and others, including:

  • What if?
  • Why?
  • Why not?
  • How?
  • How else?

What-if questions are particularly important, because they examine (and question) long-held, potentially erroneous, assumptions.

Creative thinkers ask questions such as:

  • How else can we view or consider this issue?
  • What alternatives might exist?
  • Is there anything we haven’t yet considered?
  • What other ways might there be to do that?
  • Where else can we get more information?
  • Who else has a suggestion?
  • How can something happen (rather than whether something can happen)?

The kinds of questions we ask are important. Good questions encourage exploration, open our minds to possibilities, enliven curiosity, and excite imaginations. Good questions probe a problem until the heart of the issue is uncovered; they are provocative, thereby eliciting others to think differently, and they are open-ended, allowing more than one answer. In addition, they jumpstart thinking by stimulating and engaging others, generate other productive questions, and produce new answers.

Some examples of good questions are:

  • Why do we consider a safety instrumented system failure as a near miss?
  • How can we avoid a runaway reaction?
  • To what extent do personal safety and process safety overlap?
  • Why not allow senior operators to train new operators?
  • What if we invited members of the Local Emergency Planning Committee to participate in our hazard analysis studies?

Characteristics of a Creative Thinker


  • Thinks imaginatively
  • Views issues as challenges
  • Engages with challenges
  • Open to new ideas
  • Believes alternatives exist
  • Wonders and speculates about what could or might be
  • Looks at issues from different perspectives
  • Stimulated by the ideas of others
  • Able to defer judgment on an issue
  • Displays an open mind
  • Exhibits fluency and flexibility of thought
  • Uses metaphor, analogy, and visualization to make connections and explores ideas from varied perspectives
  • Able to live with ambiguity
  • Self-confident
  • Able to tolerate a degree of chaos in thinking
  • Knows how to ask good questions

Overcoming obstacles to creative thinking

Several obstacles often stand in the way of our creative thinking. Overcoming them can allow our creativity to thrive.

Searching for the “right” answer. Formal education systems typically teach students to determine the correct answer. This approach is fine for problems that have only one correct answer. However, most real-world problems have many “right” answers. Unfortunately, if a person believes there is only one correct answer to a problem, they will stop looking as soon as they find one — and might miss a more-promising solution.

One way to encourage people to continue brainstorming is to set a quota on the number of alternatives that must be generated. For example, when investigating process safety incidents, engineers may be tempted to jump to a conclusion about the cause of an incident because of their strong desire to know what went wrong. Setting a quota on the number of possible causes that must be identified...

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