Three Questions

“Ask questions when you don’t know the answer. And sometimes when you do.

~Malcom Forbes

In a safety leadership workshop, a front line supervisor asked the teacher: “My boss wants me to ask you, “What is safety leadership?”

Sitting for an interview with a local newspaper reporter, a newly appointed CEO was asked “How do you manage safety?”

In the aftermath of another tragedy involving guns and mental illness, the Wall Street Journal asked its readers about passing more laws: “Why should anyone believe that any of these solutions would actually work as intended?

Three questions, three venues; all asked in the same week. Last week. Three questions with three things in common…besides being questions.

First, all three involve safety, at work and in public. Everyone who works for a living understands they work around things – what we call hazards – that can hurt them. Sadly, as we have come to learn the hard way, sitting in a classroom, a movie theatre, or taking in a concert now comes with its own deadly serious hazard: one that can – and has – produced serious harm to people like you and me – and our kids.

It shouldn’t be that way, but it is what it is.

Second, upwards of a couple of decades ago, we started calling those kind of questions Darn Good Questions. DGQ’s are the kind of questions that get someone to stop and think: think differently; think better. Give credit where credit is due: Socrates came up with the idea. “I can’t teach anyone. I can only make them think.” The man was a genius, asking some amazing questions that people are still talking about.

Twenty-five hundred years later, as a means to influence, the technique works as well as ever. But if you want to use questions that way, you better know what you’re doing. Most do not.

As to the third common element, in one form or another, those three questions are about execution. Safety execution.

There Ought to Be a Law

As hard as it may be for you to believe, there was a time when laws were few and far between. Standard Oil’s John D. Rockefeller never broke a law – but he certainly caused a lot of laws to be written. For good reason.

Today, we don’t suffer from a lack of laws and regulations. So, when something goes so badly wrong as it did in Florida, part of the process of understanding what went wrong should be to ask, “Why didn’t the last law you wrote solve the problem? You said it would.” We deserve no less from our leaders.

After all, we are the ones living in harm’s way.

If the reason that the last change in the law didn’t change the result was that some people didn’t follow the law, that’s a problem. With execution, and thinking people will obey the next law. So, why should anyone believe that any of these “solutions” would actually work as intended?

A Darn Good Question!

The CEO Interview

Reporters ask questions for a living. Makes them pretty good at the process. Find out who, what, when, where, how and why, and you’ve got the story. Now, run with the story – and don’t bury the lede!

You’re in a different business, but smart leader that you are, likely you recognize those questions from their use where you work. Those six are the essence of an investigation, no matter what the subject. It’s as simple as this: if you want to understand what went wrong, find out who, what, when, where, how and why. Know that, and you’ve got the story.

Just don’t run with it until you have also figured out what to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Fail to do that – come up with a good solution – there’s really no point in conducting an investigation. “Now that I figured out what went wrong, I’m not going to do a darn thing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Meaning next time it does, anyone who doesn’t get hurt should consider themselves lucky.

Think it’s crazy to think that way? People do it all the time.

New in town, the CEO sits down for the interview with a local reporter who happens to know for a fact that safety is at the forefront of the new CEO’s agenda. It better be: last year, the newspaper had headlines splashed all over the place about the big accident at the company’s site across town: five people killed when something went badly wrong. OSHA labeled it a “willful violation” – another big story – and hinted that the case may be referred to the Department of Justice, meaning that criminal charges cannot be ruled out. More headlines.

This is reality. You can be sure the CEO came well-prepared for the predicable questions. The answers were honest. For example, the CEO says here’s what I tell people: “I can’t be with each of you every day, and remind you to work safely.” No CEO can. “We can put all the procedures in place, but you need to want to follow them.”

People do need to follow the procedures, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Compliance is a tough challenge. So, new CEO: How do you manage safety performance?

As to the answer to that good question: “It’s collaborative. One of the things that’s important is that (on) my leadership team, we own the results of the organization. All the results, not just financial, but safety results.”

Leaders running the operation own the results, whether good or bad. So, what’s the plan to change those bad results into good results? There’s a five-year plan: new procedures, revised procedures, training on procedures, a new program. That going to do it? Maybe if the plan is executed. But if it’s not executed, it won’t.

What’s the plan to make sure that plan is executed the way it’s supposed to be?

A Darn Good Question.

Safety Leadership

“My boss wants me to ask you, “What is safety leadership?” Truth to tell, I was the teacher on the receiving end of that question. First things first: that’s good thinking on the part of that leader, on a subject that demands nothing less. Fair game to ask a consultant who talks, writes about and teaches safety leadership.

As to the answer, that’s not all that difficult – if you were paying attention to what W. Edwards Deming had to say on the subject. Deming observed, “All work is a process.” He was talking about process and product quality improvement, but he might just as well have been thinking about safety leadership.

Simply stated, a process converts inputs into outputs. When it comes to safety, if you start at the top, the output of the process of safety leadership is found at the end of every single day: who goes home alive and well, and who does not. Whether good or bad, those are outputs, results.

To paraphrase Deming, you’re always stuck with the output. If you want to change that, you have to look into the inputs – and the process.

In the safety process, there’s a long list of inputs: The products people handle. The environment in which they work. The tools and equipment they use and work around. The methods and procedures they are given. The training they are provided.

And the biggest input of all: all of those “theys.” When it comes to safety leadership, we call them Followers. Headline: some followers are better at following than others.

Converting that diverse array of inputs into the output – people going home safe – is the process of safety leadership.

A principal component of safety leadership is converting new procedures and laws into the state of new behavior we call compliance. Note to the CEO and political leaders: issuing another procedure or passing another law is easy; making that change happen is the measure of leadership.

It’s also execution: “the doing part of every work process.” When it comes to doing that process – leading followers to work safely – results prove that some safety leaders are a whole lot better at safety leadership than others.

You may be one of them. If you are, you have my respect and admiration. You’re the kind of leader I paid close attention to when I worked on your side of this deal. Your alter ego may not have noticed, but I knew who they were, and carefully watched what they did.

If you’re not one of those kind of leaders, and you own the safety results, you would do well to take note of who is – and follow their lead.

That’s true no matter who you are, and where you work.

Paul Balmert

February 2018

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