Invisible Work

“A Leader is best when people barely know he exists; when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”

~Lao Tzu

Come to one of our workshops on safety leadership, it should come as no surprise to a leader like you that you’re going to be asked a simple question: “If I followed you around for a day, what would I see you do to manage safety performance?” You are a leader, aren’t you?  And you are managing safety performance.

Or is safety managing you?

A lot of days, it feels that way.  Permits to be signed; work orders to be written; inspections to be conducted. Safety meetings to be held, where new polices get rolled out. In the friendly confines of your office, there are emails to be read, reports to be written, phone calls to be answered. Some come from your followers: “Boss, we’ve got a problem.” Sometimes it’s your boss calling, like when he tells you to show up in the conference room tomorrow morning, at 08:00 hours, for our workshop on safety leadership.
Lucky you.

Lucky me: I’m often the one standing in the front of the room for this command performance. It would be nice to think you’re thrilled to be sitting a safety leadership class, looking for help managing safety performance. You might be. If we’re being honest, sitting in class, you’re a lot more likely to be thinking, “If you really wanted to help me, you’d let me go back to work. Nobody’s going to be doing my job for me while I’m sitting in this class.”
That I would understand perfectly. Been there. Done that. Thought exactly that. If nothing else, that thought suggests something important about safety leadership: what goes on when you aren’t there.
It’s the invisible work of the leader.
Managing Your Operation
The industrial enterprise – the place where you get to work and lead – has been around since the advent of the big ideas inventors and entrepreneurs in the later decades of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century. You don’t need a degree in industrial history to know their names: Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison, Westinghouse, Daimler, Ford, Chrysler, Dow, Boeing. And their ideas, which created successful businesses (many of which still bear their names) that have been around for more than a century.
When you think about that, it really is an amazing testimonial to their genius. Those industrialists didn’t just have a better idea; from their ideas, they created both a product and a business! 
In a word, that’s execution. Execution is something else they were geniuses at. Don’t make the mistake of missing that important point. It’s what separates the winners from the losers.
They did one other thing worth noting: the creating of a lot of darn good jobs – something we could definitely use a lot more of these days. If you’ve got kids who are still living at home, because it’s financially tough out there, you know exactly what I’m saying. Not that there’s anything wrong with brewing coffee for a living. But, on that salary, good luck paying for a new car, let alone the kids’ college education.
Those “big idea” guys created the job you do, and the job I had for the better part of my industrial career: managing people in a huge industrial operation. A darn good job, when you stop and think about it.  
When you stop and think about it, what you do as the boss isn’t just a job, it’s a profession: the profession of management.
It took almost a century for someone to recognize that simple truth about what you and your industrial peers do for a living. Peter Drucker was his name. In 1954 he wrote the first, and to this day, the best book on your profession: The Practice of Management. It is still a great read.
It took almost a century to produce one book. Now you’ve got a thousand or so to choose from. Don’t take my word for it: search the web for books on management and leadership. You’ll scroll through pages after pages of titles – if you want to take the time to actually do that. If you’re short on time, try “The Fifty Best Management Books of All Time.”
Fifty best. Really.  
Now you’ve got another problem. The problem that just about every leader in the 21stcentury has: too much information. If you like to read, it’s not a problem: you’ll always have something sitting on your nightstand. Even if you aren’t a voracious reader, you’re boss probably is. There’s no escaping all that “good” advice.
Reading about management theory is one thing, but not the thing that matters. You’re not in school, trying to impress your teacher with how much you know. You’re a leader, running an operation and, among your many goals, trying to make sure everyone goes home, alive and well at the end of the day.
That is the most important goal of all.
Sure, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. But of all the things that you know, what are the things you need to do to make a difference – as a leader?
Those are the things you really need to know, and know how to do.
We Did It Ourselves?
Good luck picking your way through the books on management theory. You’ll need it, if for no other reason than different authors will give you conflicting advice. One best-selling author makes a point of telling you never waive the policy. “Burn the waiver policy.” he says. A different author’s title sums up his advice within the title: break all the rules!  Who’s right? You’ll have to decide that one for yourself.
As they relate to managing safety performance, there are two management theories making the rounds deserving of some careful examination – even testing: Are they valid? Do they offer value?
The first is that you can – and should – “engineer” your way to safety.
Putting this theory into practice, it suggests managing safety performance doesn’t so much require leadership as it does smarts and money.  The way to zero is through technical problem solving­ – figuring out how to remove the hazard so that nobody could ever get hurt – and funding the budget to install the fix.
No, that is not how it gets explained. But by stating the theory that way, its flaws become immediately apparent. That’s why nobody describes it that way.  Not that there aren’t plenty of things that need to be fixed. But just because something is designed well won’t guarantee its safe use. If you need examples, start with pickup trucks and cell phones, both of which are well designed and have done plenty of damage to we humans.
Of course, described that way, you can also see the appeal of the theory. Safety doesn’t require leadership, just money. Someone else’s money, and “they” never seem to have enough to fix everything.
Moreover, as long as nothing’s perfect, everyone has an excuse. “And they’re always good excuses” as Coach Bill Parcels once explained to one of his players, who kept making the same mistake, and offering the same excuses. “Sooner or later you have to ask yourself, “Why am I always the one with the problem.””
Fixing the things that need to be fixed and holding people accountable for their behavior is the stuff of leadership. It’s not either/or.
Then there’s the “We did it ourselves” theory of management. Fair to say it’s been around for a very long time, but lately that theory has gotten a lot of air time from the standpoint that the solution to safety is found in the culture. You could trace it to Deming’s fourteenth point of Total Quality Management, developed in the 50’s. In the 80’s, the theory showed up in a variety of process improvement initiatives known as “employee involvement.” 
One safety example: the peer behavioral safety observation process. The theory: Hand something like safety over to the people who do the work, and let them make things happen. The result: something everyone owns: a culture of interdependence. 
Walk in, off the street, to an outfit that is achieving world class safety performance, it’s a good bet that’s exactly how it looks. Somebody sees a problem, they fix the problem. Somebody sees somebody working unsafe, they say something about the problem. The old hands school the rookies, all in a very positive way.
You see it, you own it. See something, say something. Mentoring. A proactive safety culture. Over the years, heard them all; you have, too. Not a thing wrong with any of those statements – of effects.
One of my good friends and associates gave me a glimpse into what that kind of safety culture really looks like. He told me about being a newly minted graduate of a fine engineering school, starting out what was to become a distinguished career in the chemical industry, with one such company.  “An operator old enough to be my father put his arm around me, and said, “Son, you can have a good career out here if you follow the rules and don’t get hurt.”
It happened fifty years ago. Given this was a chemical plant, you can probably guess who he’d gone to work for. Yes, it would be fair to say all those wonderful things about that safety culture – the kind of safety culture you’d like to have where you work.
It’s also fair to say that it completely misses the biggest question of all: How did that happen?
I’ll bet you can guess. No, they didn’t “do it themselves.” This was the effect of the invisible work of leaders.
Leadership Work Isn’t Invisible
Divine intervention excluded, everything else follows the law of cause and effect. Sometimes the cause of an effect is immediately and intuitively obvious: hit your thumb with a hammer while nailing two by fours, it’s the hammer.  Sometimes you have to do some serious research to come to an understanding of the relationship between an effect and its causes. Crime rate: The Tipping Point and Freakonomics offer conflicting theories as to the cause of that effect in big cities.
Industrial safety falls somewhere in the middle of those extremes. The relationship between the effect – safety results – and its cause (causes, really) is, to a large extent knowable and observable. You just need to know what to look for, where to look, and when to look there. Know that, look closely, and you will see what you need to see.
When you see great safety, you are smart enough to know not to stop there. Keep looking. I guarantee what you will see: good leaders – just about every leader – doing the kind of things leaders do to produce those effects. Then you will come to appreciate exactly what leaders do to produce great results isn’t invisible work.
It is very visible work: the work that causes people to say, “We did it ourselves.”
Paul Balmert
February 2017

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