Word Games

“It’s only words and words are all I have

~The Brothers Gibb

As you would expect, working as a management consultant with a focus on safety, I get to spend time with great people the world over, talking about a subject that is not only vitally important, but fascinating as well. Of course, as a leader in operations, responsible for safety, you are probably of the view that safety is far more frustrating than it is fascinating. Besides, how fascinating can something be that ultimately reduces down to people and the things that can harm them?

In a word, plenty.

Here’s an example of just how fascinating something as simple as safety can be. Two weeks ago, I spent a very full week—7 working days, plus travel—in one of those historic and fascinating places I used to read about when I was a kid. Odds are pretty good you did the same, and felt the same way about the place. From the picture, can you figure out “where in the world was Waldo?”

It wasn’t Kansas.

Yes, that would be sunrise on the River Nile. Name me any river on the planet with more history—civilization, archeology, culture—than this one? Go one kilometer to the left (north, but you knew that) and you’re in the Mediterranean. Now you know exactly where I was.

But I wasn’t “on holiday” doing some Nile river cruise; I was there to work, more specifically, to talk about managing risk. You do realize the significance of that, don’t you?

Well, maybe you don’t, because in order to appreciate the significance of that, you have to first know ancient history and then understand something that confounds the experts on the subject.

Risk on the Nile

On to the next puzzle. What do these three have in common?

  • Numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…)
  • Paper
  • Risk

Anything jumping off the page at you…other than all three contain the letter, R? You have already been given a clue. A very big clue: it’s in that picture. No, it is not “A river runs through them.”

Actually, that’s close.  To one of the things they have in common.

I find the first common element fascinating. Trace the origin of all three back in time to their origin, and you’ll be standing pretty much right where that picture was taken. Starting with numbers: the ten numerals we use to represent numbers the world over—1, 2, 3, 4…—are derived from Arabic, today the common language in the region.

Papyrus was the first medium ever used for writing things on—loosely, paper—….and everyone knows where papyrus was found growing: on the banks of the River Nile.

Here’s the best part: risk. Our English word risk is derived from an Arabic word: rizq.


As to what exactly does rizq mean, that’s a fascinating—and useful—story.

In a perfect world, Rizq would be translatable into a single, English word. But it does not, because rizq is one of those big ideas, like safety. I can’t explain safety in a single word, other than vital, because it means so much more than just “safe.”

Rizq is much the same kind of word. As it was explained to me—on a break in a workshop—rizq is more like a perspective about life. We come into this world given a set of things by our Creator: like talent, wealth, friendships, family. We aren’t all given the same thing, or the same amount of any one thing. But add it all up, and they even out.

The history of the word suggests at the point when the Romans got their hands on risk, they changed its meaning. It was their empire; no point in arguing with imperial Rome. A few thousand years later, as we often use the word today, it means exactly the opposite of rizq: not what we are given, but what we stand to lose.

In matters of safety, people risk everything.

Confused About Risk?

Look up the word risk—rather than the Arabic, rizq—in an English language dictionary, you’ll find any number of definitions for that simple four letter word. Risk can be a verb: “She risked her life to save the drowning child.” In the insurance industry, a risk is something you insure against, like a fire or flood. Bring the word risk up in a conversation about safety, there’s no telling what someone will think you are talking about. It might mean a hazard, it might mean ignoring the existence of a hazard, it might even suggest behavior—and even consequences. Over the years, I’ve heard risk used to explain all those, and a few other things as well.

If nothing else, that begins to explain why managing risk isn’t easy. To borrow (and twist) an old line, “If you can’t define it, you can’t manage it.”

Even the experts are confounded by risk. When asked about rail tankcar rollovers a few years back, the Chair of the National Transportation Safety Board kept repeating this mantra: “We will identify the hazards, and mitigate the risk.”

Excuse me for listening: Dude, the hazard has already been identified. Cable news was all over the story, and pictures were headlines in the nation’s newspapers. Rail tankcars are going off the tracks, rolling over, and, depending on what they are carrying, either catching on fire or spilling their contents all over the place. If you happened to be so unlucky as to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, that would not be good for your rizq!

Tell us something we don’t know: like, what to do to make these rail car derailments about as rare as commercial airline accidents. Or, should there happen to be a rail tankcar rollover, what to do to make darn sure the contents stay inside the tank.

You might want to reread that last sentence—particularly the part, “…should there happen to be a rail tankcar rollover, what to do to make darn sure…” That happens to be precisely what the word “mitigate” means.

In plain English: “to lessen the effect of.”

Hazard – and Risk

I’m sure that everyone who has chimed in on the subject of risk—there are plenty who have done just that—did so with the intent of making the world a safer place in which to live and work. So, despite what you might be thinking, we’re not trying to put anyone’s efforts in that regard down.

But the consultants and advisors on the subject owe you—the leader who actually has to deal with those hazards and manage risk—good help that actually does make the world a safer place in which to live and work.

Hey, we live and work here too.

To that end, here is my “one small step for man” contribution for this month. This doesn’t have to be that hard, because it really isn’t that hard.

A hazard is a “source of danger”—something that can hurt you. Like a rail car. Make that a rail tankcar, fill it with oil or chemicals, it becomes an even greater hazard.

By comparison, a risk is simply a “measure of probability”—what are the odds that some rail car actually does come off the tracks. Everyone knows it’s happened, so don’t let anyone tell you it won’t. It is not Zero Risk.

So, for every hazard, there is always a risk. What’s the source of danger? What are the odds that this source actually produces harm? Hazard and risk are like heads and tails of the same coin. They do not—and cannot—exist separately.

But, you say, “I want to completely eliminate the hazard. Make absolutely certain it could never harm anyone.”

Good idea. Have at it. Should you succeed in doing that, the hazard is no longer a hazard. There is no source of danger. Used to be… but not now.

Furthermore, that hazard is no longer a source of danger to anyone, there is no longer any risk. It can’t happen.

Game, Set, Match!

Risk – And Rizq

So, back to today’s puzzle. Besides all being the products of the ancestors of my new found friends in Egypt, what else do numbers, paper, and risk have in common?

The answer: as a measure of probability, risk is simply a number written on a piece of paper.

No more, no less. It really is that simple.

As a leader in operations, if you are successful in significantly reducing risk, all those good followers of yours will likely get to keep all the good rizq they have been given in their lives.

Paul Balmert
October 2017

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