What’s Your Plan?

“A goal without a plan is just a dream.”

~Hank Haney

Spending the first thirty years of my working career on your side of this deal – employee, supervisor, manager – I know how this works: three weeks into the new year, it’s already game on. The holidays? All but forgotten, with the exception of the bills, sitting in the pile, waiting to be paid.

It’s life, at the speed of life. My advice is to enjoy every moment you’re given. Time goes by in the blink of an eye.

Time for my first question for you in the new year: What’s your plan? Golf instructor Hank Haney regularly reminds his students: “A goal without a plan is just a dream.”

As to the goal, when it comes to managing safety performance, I have yet to meet a leader who didn’t have exactly the same goal: everyone goes home, alive and well at the end of every single day. Leaders don’t always call that by the same name: sometimes it’s injury free, accident free, zero harm, or just plain, old safe. But it’s all the same thing: everyone comes in, does their job, and goes home in at least as good condition as they were in when they showed up for work.

As to the degree of success in achieving that goal, there are a variety of ways to determine that. The injury rate is the common denominator, the metric used by leaders the world over. For all its flaws, there is a significant benefit to using that metric: every leader on the planet can compare performance, to every other leader, and their organization.

Peter Drucker once observed, “Companies don’t compete. Managers compete.” When it comes to managing safety performance, truer words were never spoken. Within any industry, companies start out with the same inputs: rules, processes, equipment, and human resources – aka people. But in terms of outputs – performance – there is a huge difference between the best, the average, and those bringing up the back of the pack.

That being the case, the injury rate achieved by any organization reflects the value-added by the leaders managing the business. Look at any of those benchmark comparisons of safety performance across companies, it becomes stunningly obvious that some managers add a whole lot more value to safety than do others!

On that point, the data speaks volumes.

Hopefully, this is the point where you chime in: “I’m just one leader in my outfit, running my crew. Last year nobody on my crew got hurt.” I hope that’s what you can say.

But that was last year. What about this year? What’s your plan?

A goal without a plan really is just a dream.

Your Statistics Problems
If you are one of the many supervisors running crews the world over where everyone went home safe every working day last year, good for you: this is the most important thing any leader has to get done. When you consider the hazards in play – all those different things capable of producing harm, from highly hazardous materials to hand tools – keeping people safe is no small feat.

But it is also easy for those numbers to mislead leaders, particularly at the department and crew level. Long story short, people are hard targets to hit, and it can take a lot for someone to actually get hurt. Statistically, misses are a lot more likely than hits.

And the difference between a hit and a miss is usually a matter of time and place, making it a random event. Aka, luck.

If you are a leader in a reasonably safe organization, that means the percentage of people getting hurt in a year’s time is small: a number like 2% or 1% or .5%. Run a crew of 20, assuming you’re doing an average job managing safety performance, statistically, in most years, nobody on your crew should get hurt.

When someone does get hurt, it’s too late to do something to keep that from happening. Which points to your other problem with safety statistics: knowing the direction the safety performance of your crew is heading: getting better, staying the same, or getting worse. A statistic vitally important to every leader.

If this is the point at which you chime in, “That’s what our site or division or company leading indicators tell us” I have one more question about those statistics to ask you: As a supervisor running a crew, can you determine where your crew is headed by looking at those numbers? Probably not, because your numbers are mixed in with every other supervisor’s numbers.

As important as those leading indicators might be to someone else, if you’re a front line leader running a crew, they probably don’t tell you what you need to know about your crew.

In all likelihood, you have a statistics problem. Just about every front line leader on the planet does, too.

Whose Plan Is It?
In industrial organizations the world over, there is a chain of command. The supervisor has a superintendent. The superintendent has a manager. The manager has a director. The director has a vice president. The vice president has a president. The president has a chief executive. The top executive has a board of directors, or owner. Goals aren’t made in a vacuum: they need to be aligned up and down the chain of command.

No news there: every leader working for every outfit in the world understands that perfectly well. 

On the matter of goal alignment, for safety it’s as good as it gets: everyone wants everyone else to go home alive and well. On the matter of goal zero, there really is true alignment. The only possibility for misalignment would be if some supervisor thought people getting hurt was ok.

As a practical matter, the question isn’t about the goal, but the plan to achieve that goal. Ask the question, “What’s your plan?” and many leaders will reply, “Ask my boss. It’s not my job.”

The supervisor points out that the department has a safety plan. The department manager points out that the site has a safety plan. The site leader points out that the division has a plan. The division manager points out that the corporation has a plan.

So, who’s plan is it? Somebody else’s plan.

Alignment with the plan down through the chain of command is one of those business practices that every outfit in the land……well, practices. Every business school in the land teaches: develop the plan, get alignment with the plan. Executives remind everyone, “We can’t have silos, and won’t tolerate anarchy.”

It all makes perfect sense. But when it comes to safety, there is a flaw in that logic. And a flaw that is not inconsequential to that goal every leader has: sending everyone home, alive and well at the end of every single day.

What Is The Challenge?
That same golf teacher who advises, “A goal without a plan is a dream” also regularly reminds his students “If your diagnosis is not right, you have no chance of making a plan.”

By definition, an organization is the sum of its components. In industrial organizations, those components have familiar names, like production, distribution, maintenance, capital projects. There’s geography: plants, mines, regions. You can go up the organization, and go on: business and product segments.

I’d rather go down and out: In the TSU unit, there are four shifts: A, B, C and D. In the Maintenance Department, there’s the electrical and instrument group, the mechanical group, and the labor gang.

When it comes time to craft a safety plan, when the leader in any one of those components – big or small – points up, and says, “I’m following my boss’s plan” that leader is making an assumption: “My followers are just like everyone else’s.”

Really? Operations is suffering from high turnover. Maintenance is suffering from high overtime. The expansion project is employing a new contractor. The low bid contractor. Nobody in the warehouse has suffered any kind of injury in anyone’s memory. The tough safety challenges are obvious: loss of experience; training; fatigue; culture; schedule pressure; complacency.

Equally obvious is the fact that no two departments face identical challenges.

What’s the chance that a “one-size fits all plan” will work?

Time for A Little Diagnosis
If you’re following along – which I’m sure you are: you do want everyone going home alive and well – my advice is obvious. And not particularly difficult to put into practice. No matter what kind of help you may be getting from your boss, do some analysis of the followers in your sphere of influence.

Not to mention your area of responsibility. 

What are the particular challenges they’re facing, doing the kind of work they do? What kind of actions should you be undertaking to see to it that they do go home alive and well every single day? With those answers, you’ve got a goal, not a dream.

There’s your plan!

Paul Balmert
January 2019

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