The Top 10 Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance

Biggest Mistake Number 8

Biggest Mistake Number 8:
Driving Out All Fear

“Drive Out Fear”

~W. Edwards Deming

What Peter Drucker did for how we manage our business, Dr. Edwards Deming did for how well we make our products.

Dr. Deming came to public prominence late in his life. Born at the start of the 20th century, he was educated in mathematics and physics. He graduated at the height of the Great Depression, managing to find work in the United States Department of Agriculture. In the late 1930’s, he joined the Census Bureau, where his training in statistical sampling methods proved useful in the 1940 Census.

Then things started getting interesting. With a world war going on, Deming put his knowledge about statistical sampling methods to work on the factory floor, helping to dramatically improve the product quality of US war materials. In the 1950’s, he was invited to Japan to help rebuild their manufacturing sector. What worked in our factories worked just as well in theirs.

Fast forward to the 1980’s, to begin to fully appreciate what the Japanese had accomplished in product quality of everything from automobiles to consumer electronics. They did that following the advice of a statistician who got his start counting cows and people. The Japanese honored Dr. Deming by naming their national quality award in his honor.

When we finally woke up to the “quality revolution” that had been taking place in the manufacturing sector, there to help us was the towering figure of W. Edwards Deming. Deming was in his 80’s, but still a commanding figure, both intellectually and physically. (We still remember Deming’s photo, taken with our plant quality manager: the good Doctor stood every bit of 6’ 8”.)

In his years of working with industrial clients, Deming built what many of us in the manufacturing management business would learn as his “14 Absolutes of Quality.” These were the principles and practices Deming believed absolutely essential for managers to follow to achieve the highest standards of product and service quality. It was great stuff for us managers to pay attention to.

In the middle of his list of Absolutes was the proviso to “Drive out fear.” Dr. Deming believed that, in the campaign to improve quality, fear of getting in trouble for making defective products and reporting quality problems was a major roadblock to progress. We’re sure he had plenty of first hand experience that led him to that conclusion.

Management can’t fix what it doesn’t know about. Deming wisely concluded that the fear of reprisal from management kept many employees from reporting product quality problems. The guys out in the warehouse would rather ship a defective product and let the customer figure out there was a problem: surely, management wouldn’t fire the customer when they told them there was a problem. Of course, having the customer finding the defect was never good for sales.

If Deming’s absolute of Drive out fear was right for quality improvement, why wouldn’t it be just as good for improving safety? More than a few of us thought so, and tried to apply the same concept to managing safety performance.

It sounded like a great idea. People would tell the truth during investigations and report all their near misses. All we had to do was tell them that nothing bad would happen to them if they did so. Talk about driving out fear!

What we failed to do is what Dr. Deming did, as he built up his absolutes: think critically about the implication of the concept. Deming built his absolutes over a career that spanned more than 60 years. Most of us were from the “One Minute Manager” school: we figured: “That sounds like a good idea. Let’s give it a try and see how it works.”

It didn’t work nearly as well as we thought. Employees didn’t trust us in the first place not to take action when they told us the truth. The few who did were sorely disappointed in the cases where we didn’t – or couldn’t – keep our word. Sometimes what they told us had to be dealt with – including their own choice of bad behavior.

If we had thought critically about the subject of “driving out fear” as it relates to safety, our conversation might have looked like this:

Drive out fear. Fear of what? The answer is consequences. It’s the consequences that employees fear. When it comes to making a quality product, we wish they wouldn’t fear consequences: if we have a product quality problem, we’re better off knowing that than having our customers find it for us.

Are the consequences of making and shipping a defective product the same as a serious injury to our employees who make the product? The answer is no (unless the product defect causes injury to someone else). Our fork-lift operator breaking his leg is far worse than shipping a batch of paint that doesn’t match the color specification. The paint can always be returned.

On the other hand, if the fork-lift operator had a near miss incident – nearly running over someone – would we be better off knowing about it? Sure we would. What would prevent the operator from reporting that near miss?

Fear that he would get in trouble. Which might happen if he admitted that he was driving way too fast and not paying attention when he nearly hit that guy in the warehouse.

So, our fork lift operator makes the calculation of consequences: better to be safe (from management) and not report the near miss than run the risk of getting in trouble.

“Getting in trouble” is the consequence that people fear. It keeps them from telling management what’s really going on out there.

Is that the greatest consequence that our fork-lift operator should fear?

Give the question more than a moment of thought, and a far greater fear emerges: the fear of doing serious harm to a co-worker. How would anyone feel having to go through the rest of their life knowing they were responsible for the permanent injury – or death – of someone they worked with?

What should everyone who works fear the most? It’s not making a defective product, or even getting chewed out for not being careful. It’s doing something that gets him, or someone else, seriously hurt.

Fearing those consequences is a good thing. It’s a fear that everyone should want to increase, not drive out.

Sure, along the way, you have to deal with people who choose fear of discipline as their principal motive. If that gets them to follow the safety rules and pay attention to what they’re doing, that’s not all bad. What motivates many of us obey the speed limits is the thought that there just might be a cop around that next curve in the road.

The fundamental motivation to follow the safety rules and work safely should be driven by fear of what an accident would do to the life of the person who got hurt. You never want to drive out that fear.

Instead of following Dr. Deming, we should have chosen to follow the advice of Edmund Burke: “Early and provident fear is the mother of safety.”

Not recognizing that truth is one of the mistakes that many of us has made.

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