The Check Step

“If you can not measure it,
you can not improve it”
     ~Lord Kelvin

The most important responsibility of every leader in operations the world over is to send every follower home, alive and well at the end of the day. That you know perfectly well. Put into practice, it leaves supervisors with a question to be answered at the end of every day: did that actually happen?
As to finding out the answer, it’s simple: you check. 
In Deming’s Virtuous Cycle of Plan/Do/Check/Adjust, it’s the familiar “Check” phase. Deming’s four steps of continuous improvement provide an interesting way to look at the practice of management. The job of industrial management is to execute and improve; that makes those four steps a succinct summary of the management function. In the view of Peter Drucker, author of The Practice of Management there are five functions: he added “developing people” to what amounted to the Deming’s four. 
Drucker may well have built upon a model developed by a successful French mining engineer, Henry Fayol, who half a century earlier identified similar management functions. At the point of checking, Fayol used the French word controler, “in the sense that a manager must receive feedback about a process to make necessary adjustment and must analyze the deviations.”
That sums up the check step perfectly. 
All this serves as a reminder that the best ideas stand the test of time. Fundamental truths endure; the passage of time leaves fads in the dust. Deming, Drucker and Fayol identified the collection and analysis of information about performance as a critical step in the management process; It’s the basis for managing and improving performance. 
Some things never change.

Boiling the functions of management down to a handful of common steps doesn’t mean the practice of those steps by supervisors and managers at all the different levels in an industrial organization will look the same, or even remotely similar.
Consider the plan step, for example. Planning, when performed by a front-line leader, typically deals with the work of the day to be performed by members of a crew. When done in the corporate suite, planning can involve an entire company, and stretch across a time frame that might be measured in years.
But enough about management science. Checking is what’s of particular interest, as it relates to managing safety performance. The question is this: How does the measurement step and function play out for safety.
Specifically, how does a front-line leader perform this step at the end of every day? 
Performance Question Number 1
You can’t measure something that hasn’t happened. On the subject of measurement science, that should come as no shocking revelation. Yet, in the search for what are known in the business as leading indicators – trying to measure something that hasn’t happened – that fact seems to be overlooked. 
I’m sure you’ve heard some version of the oft-repeated line of thinking that goes, “Lagging indicators are like looking in the rearview mirror. It’s more important to look where you’re headed.” It’s a viewpoint that has led some to conclude that past performance is unimportant. But what information could possibly be any more important than knowing whether everyone went home alive and well at the end of the day? 
Checking that should always be the first priority. There’s more to finding out the answer than first meets the eye.
On the one hand, for a supervisor of a crew where everyone works “right under your nose” (as my mother used to put it) the leader knows when someone they supervise was hurt. Immediately! But not every supervisor has the luxury of that kind of proximity; many supervisors depend on their followers to tell them when they get hurt. 
Sometimes followers do not, for reasons that are not the least bit difficult to understand and appreciate. Just put yourself in their shoes. Or picture getting hurt yourself. 
As you move up the chain of command, finding out if anyone got hurt gets tougher. How does the site leader find out who didn’t go home alive and well – or the CEO? They don’t see it happen, and unless it’s a serious injury, they probably won’t get a phone call or text message.
There’s bound to be a process. It begins with notification; later comes collecting relevant information, analysis, and then, formal reporting, such as the weekly safety report. In large organizations, the process is typically delegated to staff. All well and good, but no matter how large the breadth of the organization and how robust the data collection system, the process still boils down to answering the most basic of performance questions, “Did anyone get hurt?”
A word to the wise: if you don’t know exactly how this process works in your operation, find out. 
Looking Ahead
By definition, measurement involves past events: what’s happened. As to the use of what’s measured, there are choices. Measures can simply communicate what’s going on: “Thirty new hires attended safety orientation.” Measures can be used to compare, judge, evaluate, recognize, and reward: “We are celebrating a year with no injuries.” Measures can be used to reveal the trend: the direction of performance. “The number of pieces of equipment overdue for inspection has steadily declined; last month, for the first time ever, there were zero overdue.”
Using measures to reveal trends is what’s commonly referred to in the business as “leading indicators.” A trend that has unfolded in the past is projected to continue into the future, with implications for performance. A truly useful leading indicator would serve as the Rosetta Stone for safety performance, translating numbers into a reliable prediction of the future. 
Were that the case, managing would be a lot easier: if the trend predicts a potential problem: change something; trend predicts better performance: keep on doing what you’re doing. Wouldn’t that be nice!
The problem isn’t with the concept; it’s coming up with measures to be able to do exactly that: reliably and accurately predict the future. Think that’s easy?
By way of example, a couple of years ago, those who manage money for economies all over the world were confident their leading indicators were predicting, “Inflation is transitory.” How’d that work out?
With the benefit of thousands of PhD’s in economics and finance, and the biggest computers money can buy, the geniuses of money supply have been profoundly unsuccessful in predicting the future price of one simple commodity, money.
You might observe, “But inflation isn’t just about money, it’s how people behave with their money.” If so, you would not be wrong. It’s the people component in the equation that has made prediction so difficult: inflation is as much a behavioral finance problem as it is a money supply problem.  
Predicting that has proven somewhere between difficult and impossible – for people who do nothing but predict that kind of thing for a living. Think trying to accurately and reliably predict the safe behavior of thousands of people working in big operation is any different?
Considering all the variables involved, it might be…. even tougher.
The Front Line Leader
Reading all that, you might be thinking, “Thankfully, this is not my problem. I’m just a supervisor, running a crew.” You would not be wrong: the search for reliable leading indicators falls to those well up in the hierarchy. It’s their challenge, not yours.
But don’t think for a second you should have no interest looking ahead: specifically, at the direction of safety performance for your crew. Au contraire: as important as measuring who went home safely today is, it doesn’t tell you a thing about what’s likely to happen tomorrow. 
Look at it this way: if you knew the safety performance of your crew was steadily deteriorating – your crew was headed for a problem ­– would you do something to change the trend? Of course you would. Alternatively, if you were confident your crew was getting safer by the day – they were better yesterday than the day before – would you keep on doing what you’re doing? Sure you would: why mess with success?
Chances are one of those two scenarios describes the trend of the safety performance of your crew: getting better or getting worse. It’s possible that your crew’s safety performance has flat-lined, neither improving or worsening. 
Here’s the bottom line: If you know your crew – in most cases you do – you should be able to answer that question. 
I’d be willing to bet you have a good feel for the answer.
Your Check Step
Assuming you’ve given thought to the answer to that question – What is the future direction of the safety performance of my crew? – you’ve come to a very important understanding about the check step in the management process. You now fully appreciate that, in practice, there are two questions to be asked at the end of the day: 

  • Did everyone go home alive and well today?
  • What about tomorrow?

Finding out the answer to the first question simply calls for checking: asking and verifying. 
Coming up with a good answer to the second question – predicting the future – calls for checking of a different sort: looking for discernable trends that point to the future performance and behavior of your followers. 
In both cases, you check by looking to the past. It’s how you use that information that spells the difference.
Paul Balmert
June 2023


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