Am I a cook or a chef? It turns out that has nothing to do with what I wear, or whether I have a certificate, it comes down to one simple thing.  And no, it’s not a bad temper. 

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way. Welcome to you, you’re in the right place. If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

A lesson from Hollandaise

We’ve just had a long weekend over Easter, and had some awesome family time, including with my extended family who I love. 

My parents-in-law, yes I love them too, stayed the night and were sitting at our table with the first cup of coffee in the morning.  They’re not big breakfast people but they do appreciate nice food, so I thought what better time is there than to have some eggs Florentine with smoked salmon. 

The eggs bit of this meal is pretty self explanatory (but they must always be poached), and the Florentine part simply means that it has spinach (instead of ham or bacon like you would have with eggs benedict).  But the thing that brings this breakfast to life, the heart and soul of the culinary experience, is the Hollandaise Sauce. 

Hollandaise Sauce is as delicious as it is deadly.  The recipes vary, but here’s the basics:

 – separate egg yolks from whites, we’ll use the yolks

 – put a bowl over a barely simmering saucepan of water, and whisk the yolks with lemon juice until pale and fluffy

 – gradually add melted butter or soft cubes of butter, one at a time, whisking the sauce until the butter is incorporated.  A lot of butter. 

 – finish with seasoning. 

And you have this amazing sauce that is just heavenly. 

Except when it splits, which means the melted butter separates from the egg yolks and turns into a slimy mess, not a beautiful silky and fluffy yellow sauce. 

And right before I served my in-laws this much-anticipated 5-star breakfast, my sauce split.  To say I was annoyed would be an understatement.  A 99% Hollandaise sauce is as good as zero, its not worth putting on the plate.  I was fuming. 

The common things in cookbooks

If you have any cookbooks at home, you’ll find that they all have something in common.  Even if you have one of those old Womens Day almanacs of this style or that, or even an entire volume on recipes for the grill, or a slow cookers, or dare I saw microwave cooking.  When you read between the lines, and across the recipes, things start to emerge. 

Like Asian recipes have a balance of sweet, sour and salty flavours, and almost always a vegetable that is really crisp and fresh, whether its substantial or just a garnish. 

Pork and apples are great friends.  So are beef and mustard.  Some meals go better with mash , others with fried crispy potatoes.  And then you can look seasonally, game (especially in the Northern Hemisphere) is for autumn and winter, in hot, filling and flavourful wet dishes like stews.  Salads and fish often find themselves on the table in the warmer months.  Cakes are many and varied, but the variation always involves

What this starts to reveal is that most recipes are based on a limited number of principles.  Which is why you will find that every chef has recipes, but they don’t follow recipes.  For a cook, on the other hand, recipes are the formula for the food, and a variation, or a disaster (like a split Hollandaise sauce) quickly creates problems. 

Cook and chefs: Practices and principles

I had a session with an international team of health and safety leaders who are thinking about how they can understand and start to put Safety II, Safety Differently and HOP into practice in their big, multi-national and high risk organisation. 

This amazing group of leaders have been doing a lot of reading, study, exploring and thinking.  “How can we take these ideas and out them into practice?” Is the basic but complex challenge out to them by the global head of health and safety. 

My contribution to this group is quite simple: help people think out loud, together with each other, circling around the questions they want to begin to answer, and start to answer the questions by discovering the principles which will inform what they do next. 

Let me give you an example.  Safety II from Erik Hollnagel suggests that we have enormous opportunity to learn and improve, not just from what goes wrong but what goes well – which is most things, most of the time. 

So I ask, “what activities do we do, and what triggers do we have, for learning from what goes wrong, and learning from what goes well?”

The list of things we are triggered to do, and thus spend more time and resources on, is much longer than the list of triggers and opportunities we have to learn from normal work. 

It’s not uncommon that people start a conversation with me, say about learning teams and investigations.  How are they similar or different? Can one replace the other? Can you integrate them together? Etc. 

They are all very interesting and useful questions.  But no one seeking to make change in an organisation, will have much success convincing anyone to try anything new, if you focus on the practices without understanding the principles.  The tactics without the strategy. 

There are a bunch of clever reasons why principles serve you better than practices:

 – principles ensure your practices deliver on their objective, instead of becoming an objective in and of themselves (that the difference between doing so its done vs doing to get an outcome)

 – principles are far easily defendable than practices

 – principles help you construct a better pitch or argument for change

 – principles are infinitely more flexible than practices – change a practice if it doesn’t work, and you will easily adapt because the principles guide your adaptations

Which is exactly the same with Hollandaise Sauce. 

A Principle-based way to Fix Hollandaise Sauce

You can make Hollandaise Sauce with a recipe.  Since it is so special a treat, I often consult a recipe.  But what I am looking for is a reminder of the principles, mostly the ratio of eggs to butter.  That’s a principle which means you can scale the recipe up or down. 

And it’s not surprising that few if any recipes tell you how to fix a broken Hollandaise Sauce.  You need to google another webpage to find that out.  And sometimes, that’s too late. 

Unless you are a chef, who works with principles.  And when things go wrong, we go back to first principles. 

There are three main principles I find useful when thinking about Hollandaise Sauce:

  1. It is an emulsion, a specific kind of mixture of two physically different liquids
  2. It needs heat to work, but not too much
  3. Flavour wise, the balance between the salty butter and the lemon juice is key

Principles 1 and 2 saved the day for me.  After the requisite amount of Gordon Ramsay expletives, I worked out that in tyring to keep the sauce warm, it got too hot.  Butter melts out and eggs start to scramble.  Next, as an emulsion, I know that as long as the butter and eggs hadn’t changed too much, I could re-emulsify the sauce. 

With water.  Simple. Take it off the heat and use a little cool water whisked back into the sauce, and in a minute or two your sauce is back to 100%. 

And yes, it was delicious. 

Which P makes you more effective?

We can do our work by creating and implementing and enforcing and assuring practices, activities, tasks. We can cook marvellous things by following the recipe. 

But what if we want to take things to the next level?

What are the principles behind the things we do in the name of safety, and how do they work? How aware are we of these principles, and did we choose the principles or did we inherit them, vaguely and incompletely when we decided on this practice or that practice?

If we want to be able to successfully adapt to these ever more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times, be like a chef.  Understand, share, articulate, defend and create using principles, and you’ll be a star. 

Thanks so much for listening.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way? Seeya!

I have been helping organisations introduce and facilitate learning teams, and other kinds of modern learning practices, for quite some time, with lots of success. The success comes from the right combination of principles (which is knowing why we do something), and practices (which is the who, the what, and the how).

The trouble is that there are PLENTY of people who are really interested and excited about learning teams, for good reason, they can be awesome. Or you might be someone who is just frustrated not getting the engagement you want in risk assessments, with investigations saying the same things and not improving much, or safety committee’s that are, frankly, shitty.

Making change can be hard, especially without a map to guide you.

This is bread and butter for me and the Safety on Tap team. We build the capability in people like you and organisations like yours to learn how to learn better, which improves performance.

We do this through things like our Learning Teams Implementation Case Study Group is a small group of people who I coach to implement learning practices inside their organisation. We have masterminds to help senior leaders embed learning strategies into their overall safety and operational strategy. I facilitate learning teams, and do some 1:1 coaching too.

But you might not be ready for any of that.

Which is why we make epic videos and webinars, so I can help you gradually learn, and grow, and get ready to take action. And if you want help to take that action, to accelerate your impact, then I’ll be here to help. But in the mean time, why not check out our most current webinar. We do these every month or so, so you can join our next one or check out the recording of the last one. Head over to to get access for free.

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