Information, Please!

“None of us can see ourselves, so we have to have good information. If you’re not getting good information, it doesn’t matter how strong your desire is.”

~Paul Azinger, Professional Golfer and Ryder Cup Captain

Malcom Forbes advised, “Ask questions when you don’t know the answer. And sometimes when you do.” Darn good advice from a very smart businessman. Forbes wasn’t just smart: he was successful. Trust me: the former is no guarantee of the latter.

As to evidence that Forbes was both smart and successful, you can start by picking up a copy of Forbes Magazine.

A hobby of Forbes was collecting eggs. Not your common variety, Easter type, but the jeweled ones crafted out of ceramic and precious metal by Peter Carl Faberge. More than a century ago, Faberge made a few for the Russian royal family. Decades later, Forbes managed to buy up 9 of them. His former collection is now back in St. Petersburg, and on display at the Shukalov Palace. Something for the bucket list.

Asking questions when you don’t know the answers happens all the time. The boss calls, wanting to know, “Who’s working on the problem?” “When is it going to be fixed?” “How much did you produce today?” and “Why are you spending so much money?”

Nothing special about asking those questions.

As to asking questions when you do know the answer, put me in front of a room full of front line supervisors, it’s only going to be a matter of minutes before I’m asking, “What are the toughest safety challenges you face as the leader – every day?” It never fails to light up the room.

As to the answers, there’s a long list of challenges every supervisor on the planet faces; challenges they are intimately familiar with. A collection of brutally tough challenges standing in the way of “Goal Zero” as I like to characterize the bottom line safety goal of every outfit on the planet.

I wrote the book on those challenges. When I had a job like they have, I faced them myself. For almost two decades, I’ve been writing this newsletter about those challenges. I suppose I could tell them what I already know, but it works so much better when they’re telling me about their challenges. So instead of telling, I put my ego in check, channel my inner Malcom Forbes, and ask, even though I know.

The process has a formal name: Role Modelling. Find someone who does something well, and copy what they do.

As To Not Knowing The Answer

By comparison, stand me up in front of a conference room with top executives sitting around the table, it won’t be long before I ask, “What issues involving managing safety performance would you like to discuss today?”

As to why I ask that, there are two practical reasons. The first: I’m never quite sure exactly what’s on their mind. While there is a predictable list of topics that relate to leading and managing safety performance in the wheelhouse of top execs, you can never be sure which one is the crisis du jour.

One time I was introduced to the half dozen leaders running a publicly traded oil and gas exploration and production client, and before I could even open my mouth, I was instructed to sit down. By the CEO! Who had an axe to grind with his poor EHS director: “Why are your staff peddling all of this nonsense about “hazard reduction”? Don’t your people know what business we are in?”

I wisely stepped out of the cross-fire. No need to be an innocent victim. Listening in, it took me all of two minutes to figure out the real problem: a misunderstanding as to the difference between hazard and risk. The CEO was talking about hazards and the Safety leader was talking about risk. Two sides of the same coin, but not apparent to either. I wasn’t the least bit surprised: I see it all the time.

When there was a pause in the action, I proposed a momentary cease fire, and used the opportunity to explain that difference. In simple English. “Aha!” Problem solved.

You might be wondering if hazard and risk was on the list of potential topics for the day’s discussion?” Of course it was. I just didn’t know it was the hot topic of the day.

Recently, one senior leader’s priority was to talk about safety metrics. It went up on the wall as one item on a long list, and there was just one leader who wanted to talk about the numbers: what they are, and what they should be.

So, we didn’t talk about the numbers. Too bad, because we really should have. It’s a vitally important conversation the executives who run any operation need to have, for a long list of reasons.

Information, Please!

As to why I ask about the topics the executives want to invest time on, the other reason is that they call the shots as to what exactly they are taught. That should come as no great surprise: executives do that for everything else; why should safety performance be any different?

On the other hand, as the author of the newsletter, I get to choose the topic. Measurement is a favorite subject, and a topic that we should have talked about.

Let’s Talk

Channeling my inner Malcom Forbes, the discussion on the topic of measuring safety performance would likely have started with this question, “As an executive running the business, what information about safety performance do you need?” Smart executives know what they need, and I’m sure they’d have given me a list. I’d write them all down on a flip chart; it’s what consultants do.

Here’s the thing: all of their answers to that question will fall in one of three categories. That’s because performance data fills three separate and distinct functions.

  • Data from which performance can be evaluated, compared and judged.
  • Data from which predictions as to future performance can be made.
  • Data which provide insight in to how work processes are functioning.

As I’m sure you know, in most circles, the first two are commonly referred to as Lagging Indicators and Leading Indicators. But please don’t put me with that crowd: I don’t happen to share that opinion, and try to avoid either term. My advice to leaders is that they should follow my lead. Rarely do they.

As to why they should, it’s not that complicated. All data is history: you can’t measure something that hasn’t happened. A leader can use historical data to evaluate, judge and compare. A leader can use historical data to predict future performance.

It’s even possible to use the same data to both judge and predict: it happens all the time. When a football team with a 10 and 1 record plays a team with a 1 and 10 record, it’s not hard to predict who will likely win. If the team with the 1 and 10 record wins, it’s considered a huge upset!

Pretty much nobody was predicting that, not even the winning coach.

Yes, when it comes to managing safety performance, every leader should want to be able to do both: judge and predict. Data from which to judge and compare is the basis on which to provide feedback and consequences. “Best year for safety ever! Let’s celebrate our performance.” Data from which to predict future performance provides the basis on which to correct and change: “This is an alarming trend. If we don’t do something different, we’re going to have a disaster on hands.”

Sitting here, reading this, it’s all so obvious: quit calling some data leading and other data lagging indicators, because all it does is confuse people, starting with the leaders themselves. Instead focus on this: What information is needed to effectively judge safety performance and to feel reasonably comfortable in knowing its future direction?

As to exactly what that future direction might be, that is also so obvious: safety performance is either getting better, staying the same, or getting worse. There are no other possibilities.

Insight – Not Oversight

As to the data that provides insight into the performance of work processes, that’s the most important data of all. Measure the right process variables, and you’ll know what you need to be able to judge bottom line performance, and predict future performance. What could be better than that?

Or worse, if you’re not measuring what you really need to be measuring?

One of the very best recent examples of the phenomena of not measuring what needs to be measured comes from outside the world of managing safety performance. It Boeing’s seven year international nightmare as they attempted to roll out of the hanger their very first Dreamliner.

You’ll recall their story. They came up with a radical design for a totally different kind of aircraft, their 787. Promised the world – and their owners – the first one would be delivered in three years. For two years and nine months the project was totally on schedule. 

“Like clockwork”, their project leaders bragged to the world.

Scant weeks before the scheduled production deadline, the truth started seeping out: woefully behind schedule, wrong parts used in making aircraft components like wings sections, and components like wings not fitting up properly.

It took the next four years to get things sorted out. Suffice to say, the shareholders took a hit, and so did those project leaders and executives who were convinced the so called “performance data” reflected real reality.

In a moment of exasperation one of them, a Division President, uttered, “In addition to oversight, you need insight into what’s going on in the factories.”

So, to that third function of the safety performance data – data which provides insight in to how well key work processes are working – you don’t want that to come up missing. Otherwise you may well find yourself living in a fool’s paradise.

And don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that performance data that everyone in the outfit knows full well is used to evaluate and administer consequences always reflects the reality of performance.

Better to look elsewhere for that data.

Paul Balmert

November 2018

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