The Top 10 Mistakes Managers Make Managing Safety Performance

Biggest Mistake Number 7

Biggest Mistake Number 7:
Failing to Appreciate What Managers Really Impact

“The difference between luck and skill are seldom apparent in the short term.”

~ Investment Advice

The management team has gathered around the conference table in an emergency meeting. The urgent topic: what to do to stanch the rising tide of accidents and injuries?

It’s a familiar scene to any line manager who’d been out on the field for very long. Safety performance never follows a straight line. Like competitive athletics, safety performance is made up of streaks and slumps. Even places with the best safety numbers hit the occasional downdraft. Leading to meetings like the one just described.

These crises meetings are guaranteed to produce a flurry of activity, all designed to have an immediate and substantial impact on safety performance.

We “round up the usual suspects.” You know what they look like: send a letter urging everyone to pay more attention to what they’re doing; show up at safety meetings with the same message; call a time out for safety; solve some specific problem that was a factor in a recent accident.

Then we sit back and hope it works.

Fortunately, it usually doesn’t take long for performance to get better. When it does, it confirms what we knew all along: get us managers involved in the details of managing safety performance, and we’ll do it better than anyone else around. Are we good or what?

Once we’re finished fixing “the safety problem” we get back to working on all the other business problems we face every day.

If he were there to watch all this, W. Edwards Deming would be rolling on the floor, laughing.

As Doctor Deming understood so well, what we witnessed was random variation. The esteemed consultant would explain the concept: everything in life has variability. When the numbers go one way, they’ll eventually go the other way. To the statisticians, the term of art is “regression to the mean.” It’s the mean – the long-term trend line – that is what’s important, not the short term fluctuations in performance.

The phenomenon has fooled us time after time. When we jump in and act, we see results; performance improves. We think we’re having an impact on performance. It has to be the direct result of our good work. Of course, all that reinforces all the wrong managerial behavior.

The truth is that we’d have seen the same result if we had gone on vacation.

It’s one of the biggest mistakes managers make managing safety performance. But it’s only half the story.

While we overstate the short-term impact of our direct involvement in pulling the strings to improve performance, we consistently under-appreciate the long-term impact of our performance as managers. That trend line that safety performance regresses to is essentially the measure of our competency as line managers.

All along, we should have been thinking about safety performance this way.

Let’s accept as a given that safety performance varies significantly from one industry-group to another. For a lot of reasons, the average performer in the plastics manufacturing business has an injury rate that is different from construction or the oil-field service industry. Within each industry group, though, the means and method to perform the work are roughly equal; the exposure to job safety hazards is comparable.

That being the case, what separates the performance of the best and the worst performers within the industry group? It must be the collective competency of management, those who lead and manage safety performance.

It used to be said of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant that “he could take his team and beat yours; then take your team and beat his.”

Of course, that’s not how most of us saw the situation. Those other guys in our peer group of companies– the one’s getting the best results – always had something going for them that we didn’t. They had safety incentives, a better workforce, people who knew they shouldn’t report injuries, or better tools and equipment. When we couldn’t explain it any other way, then they just were “luckier than we were.”

Can you hear Doctor Deming laughing?

Industry group comparisons put everyone on equal footing; in the long term, luck gets canceled out. We’re left to face the fact we’re getting exactly what we deserve: the best managers get the best performance. It’s that simple.

It’s all too common for we managers to fail to fully appreciate our impact on performance. We think it’s far too great in the short term, and we don’t recognize that, in the long term, our results speak volumes about our performance as managers.

Peter Drucker once said: “Companies don’t compete; managers compete.”

It’s a huge mistake, and one of the biggest mistakes managers make managing safety performance.

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