The Journey To Zero

“I’m not going to stop until we get there.
And then, I’m not going to stop.”

     ~Mike Kellar

Sometime between the first working day of the new year and now, surely you performed your annual performance review. In all of its various forms and formats, it’s the Check phase in the Virtuous Cycle of Plan, Do, Check, Correct, as executed by you for the year just concluded.

As to those forms and formats, from first-hand experience, I can tell you they are many and varied.

Back in the day when Management By Objectives was in vogue – the 70’s – management practice at the start of each new year was the submittal of a formal report on our Measures of Performance. MOP’s, we called them: annual goals and commitments written down on paper, completed with a year-end report with numbers and a narrative of performance. That was when MBO was promised as the management system that would put our company on the path to greatness.

When it did not, individualism gave way to collectivism: business is a team game, is it not? Thus the annual State of the Business presentation: business being anything from department to site to division to entire corporation. Annually, those of us in charge created a formal presentation to be shared with our stakeholders: charts and graphs displayed on the big screen for all to see.

There were times when project reports were the thing: annual progress on work process re-engineering workstreams, documenting savings, current and projected; capital project progress against budget, schedule, and the Owner Project Objectives.

Then there was the organization’s practice known as the Individual Performance Appraisal. These were faithfully executed by every supervisor and manager, at least until they no longer were viewed as value added. So, gaps could be found in the employee files.

In those times where there was nothing in the way of a formal process, there was still the moment of reflection. Mine usually came over a cup of coffee, staring out the window when I had one, asking myself, “What kind of year was it?” and “What does that say about the new year?” Honestly, some of the best thinking I ever did came in moments like those.

Honest dialog, between the ears.

Reading this personal history, you might be thinking, “My experience is nothing like that.” You might be thinking, “That’s all too familiar.” Honestly, it doesn’t matter to the point of the story; my first goal for the first edition in the new year has been met.

You’re now fully engaged, thinking about how you review the performance of your operation.

Evaluating Safety Performance

I’d like to think every leader on the planet knows sending everyone home, alive and well, is the single most important measure of their performance. Making that where any performance review must start. So, how’d safety go last year?

Answering that question seems simple enough, and it may be easy for you to answer. For example, “Last year, nobody on my crew got hurt.” 

If you’re a front-line supervisor running a crew of twenty good followers, and nobody got hurt – not even a scratch – last year, your safety performance is as good as it gets. Good leader you are, you’ll give credit to your followers. Fine for you to say, but I give you credit for being the difference that made the difference, because you were.

But you did read the fine print – “not even a scratch” – and in all honesty noted, “For the record, I was talking about injuries requiring more than first aid. As to cuts and bruises, there were a few, fortunately all minor.”

Fair enough. That’s how the score is usually kept. But I must point out that, technically, you were not injury-free. You were “free of serious injury.” Still no small feat, mind you, but not zero in the truest sense of the word. 

That raises a question, “What really is your safety goal?” There might have been a few “close calls” where nothing happened to any of your followers, but easily could have. I’ll leave it to you to decide how minor injuries and near-misses factor into your self-evaluation. They should.

On the other hand, reading this you might be well up the management chain of command: manager, senior leader, executive. If so, evaluating safety performance is a far more complex undertaking. Unlike the front-line leader, who’s on a first name basis with every single follower, your review encompasses hundreds, perhaps thousands of followers. You’ll have to look at the numbers and see what they tell you.

You might count the injuries by their numbers – “Last year we had four recordable injuries” – or calculate the frequency rate – “Our RIFR was .50.”  If your performance review goes like that, it’s likely followed by, “… compared to our goals of 8 injuries, and a rate of 1.0.”

There are places I can take you where that performance would be the cause for celebration, and others where those numbers might be a cause for concern. In that sense, safety performance is a relative thing. 

Statistically speaking, in the 21st century world of industry, the more serious injuries happen infrequently.  I’m sure you know a recordable or reportable injury frequency rate of 2.0 – which is better than average – in simple English roughly translates, “two injuries per hundred people over a calendar year.” Said differently, 98% of all followers work safely for an entire year. 2% get injured on one day of the year. 

That’s a lot of zeros posted on the safety scoreboard. Those statistics suggest a crew of twenty, led by any front-line leader doing a better than average job at managing safety performance, should be injury-free in any given year. As a practical matter, the statistical measurement of safety performance becomes useful – statistically significant – only when followers number in the hundreds – or thousands. 

If you’re a front-line supervisor, there’s not a thing wrong with answering “Zero” to your question about injuries, but your year-end performance review must take in a lot more information to tell you what kind of year it really was. 

Benchmarking Safety Performance

No sooner than a manager calculates the injury rate, a comparison will occur. As to exactly what the basis of comparison will be, there are choices. “Compared to the goal.” “Compared to the prior year.” “Compared to the trend.”

And, yes, “Compared to the competition.”

By nature, we humans are a competitive species: no doubt you have heard of “the survival of the fittest.” Some are more competitive than most. If you’re one, you want to do better than last year, better than the year before, better than your peers. Even if you don’t, your boss does.  

If you are the best where you work at managing safety, you’ll be the envy of your peers. But, even then, if you look at a bigger arena – your company, your industry, the rest of the world, you’ll always find somebody even better at this than you. Search long and far and wide, there is somebody who is bound to be unquestionably the best.

Aka, world class.

If you’re thinking, “That sounds like benchmarking” you would not be wrong. But before you embark on a benchmarking campaign to search out the best in the world, there’s something important you need to understand about that process: the difference between a benchmark and benchmarking.

A File Full of Benchmarks

Comparisons begin with the benchmarks; they’re just numbers. Thirty years in the chemical industry and a couple decades as a management consultant with an interest in safety, as you would expect, I possess a file filled with safety benchmarks: North American Coal Miners, Plate Steel Fabricators, Independent E&P Companies, Petroleum Refiners, Chemical Manufacturers, Houston Construction and Maintenance Contractors, to name a few.

Combine all the numbers, three observations jump off the page.

  • Performance comparison is both easy and inevitable.
  • Over the decades injury rates have significantly improved.
  • Displayed collectively the range of performance, from worst to first, is dramatic.

The first two are a good thing, but the fact that there are so many operations far back in the pack is not. You would think over time the performance differential would narrow. I’m not seeing it. One possible explanation might be found in the benchmarking process

As I was taught three decades ago, by those at Zerox who invented the process, the first step in the benchmarking process is collecting and comparing the numbers. That is done well. The second step is to understand the processes that produce those benchmark numbers, good and bad.

The second step – understanding – is the essence of benchmarking. In my experience, it’s not been done well. Before looking at those better than you, you need to understand your process.

Actually, that should read “processes.” 

Achieving Zero

As performance goes, a year with zero injuries is regularly achieved by a great many front-line leaders, and occasionally by large industrial operations like a mine or manufacturing site. But in all the years of collecting safety benchmarks, I never found a large company to be injury free for a year. Until now. Late last year, I was given a benchmark study showing two companies that did exactly that. Neither was a small outfit.

A new benchmark, and proof that zero is achievable – at least for one year. 

I can’t help but think of what a fine leader, Mike Kellar, once told me: “I’m not going to stop until we get to zero. And then I’m not going to stop.”

Paul Balmert
January 2023

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