The Individual and the Team

“The strength of the team is each individual member.
The strength of each member is the team.”

     ~Hall of Fame Basketball Coach Phil Jackson


The other day I was invited to come visit a good client. It was their Safety Day. They were serving lunch and celebrating well more than a year’s worth of safe days. Safety, a celebration, and Texas barbecue? It was an offer I could not refuse.
But they did expect me to say a few words while I was there. No such thing as a free lunch.
They had me sandwiched in between a fine meal and the prize drawings; surely everyone was hopeful I’d live up to saying a few words. I was more than happy to accommodate their wishes.
As to the words, first came the observation: every day is safety day. Followed by the recognition: racking up a long succession of injury free days is a noteworthy accomplishment. Because it is exactly that.
Ironically, in some circles, the metric of recordable injuries is looked down upon with what amounts to disdain: “it’s a lagging indicator, telling little about the degree of true safety performance. Better to focus attention elsewhere.” When I hear that, I shake my head in amazement. That’s roughly the equivalent of those running the business saying, “Profitability? Not all that important.” 
The injury metric is the bottom line of safety: who went home safe – or not. Sure, there’s a lot more to the story than that, but there’s no better place to start. 
That’s where I did. The kudos for safety raises a vitally important question: “What’s the secret to your success?” If you know the answer, bottle it: there’s a big market for the formula.
The question was met with silence: nobody was rushing up to take the microphone away from me, and remind everyone assembled what they already knew: “The reason why we have been so successful is because ……”
I can’t say I was the least bit surprised. People rarely understand why they’re good at something. Even when they think they know, they’re usually wrong. 
That’s just how this performance thing works in real life. 

Experiencing Failure
One of the ways to begin to understand what drives success is to examine failure. As Henry Ford explained, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” Not that I am suggesting anyone go out and deliberately fail at safety so as to create a learning experience. Besides, it’s not necessary as there are plenty of examples in the world to study.
On that point, I polled the audience: “By show of hands, how many of you are personally acquainted with someone who suffered a life-altering injury at work? Or worse, was fatally injured?”
Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of people who said they did. In certain respects, it’s a statistical anomaly. Today’s industrial injury rates suggest injuries occur relatively infrequently: to roughly three percent of those working in a given year; the most serious injuries are a fraction of that. Most people’s circle of acquaintances runs in the hundreds – not thousands – and we don’t all know the same injured people. 
But whenever I have asked, roughly a quarter to half actually knows someone. Sometimes it’s even a member of their family. 
Holds true for me: my wife’s first cousin was killed in an industrial accident. It happened in 2017 – not 1967. We went to his funeral. As to the cause of the event that led up to his fatal injury, he was trying to fix a problem. It’s not that unusual. When I ask, “What happened at the time of the serious injury” the story often starts out the same way: “There was a problem…”.
Sure, there are plenty of cases where the situation didn’t involve a problem. But if you’re interested in understanding what it takes to achieve great safety performance, that many of the most serious cases involve an abnormal situation should get your attention.
Case in Point
The latest example in the long line of failed industrial problem solving was reported in the business press a few weeks ago. In the middle of a chaotic startup after a major capital project, a refinery in Ohio suffered an explosion and fire. As the Wall Street Journal described the scene at the time of the event, operating problems were found everywhere. A key safety valve didn’t function properly. A leak from a failed weld required suppression by the site’s fire squad. Alarms flooded the control room. A key pump failed, requiring liquids in the process to be rerouted. They showed up in unintended places, such as in a mix drum connected to the process. 
When the drum started filling up, a team of operators was dispatched by the control room to troubleshoot the problem. Directions were unclear; radio communication sporadic; it wasn’t even clear who was in charge. As to what was in the drum, they were left to figure it out on their own. A valve to drain the liquid was opened. When that happened, a flammable vapor cloud was created; it found an ignition source within moments. 
The two people standing by the drum – an operator and an operator trainee – were fatally injured. They were brothers. 
Mistake? Miscommunication? Misunderstanding? A litany of failures has been cited by regulators, investigators and reporters: wrong design, lack of procedures, non-compliance with procedures, communication breakdown, lack of training, inexperience, time pressure, cost pressure. 
Earlier in the year, the site leader set the expectation: where the process can’t be operated safely, “…then we should stop, assess the risk, and document any changes.” If any situation ever called for work to be stopped, this would have been it. Sitting here, reading that, it’s all so obvious. 
But not to those swept up in the moment of problem solving.
The Individual and the Team
If you’re the coach of the team, and your goal is to succeed, it helps to have great players. Phil Jackson’s ticket to the Hall of Fame was punched by the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. But one superstar on a team of five doesn’t guarantee success. 
Phil Jackson’s genius was finding a way to fit a strong-willed star into a structure where four teammates also played a critical role. His solution was not to subdue the personality and style of his best player “for the good of the team.”
Every supervisor and manager should pay careful to Jackson’s astute observation about the relationship between the individual and the team: “The strength of the team is each member. The strength of each member is the team.” The players will always be individuals, the team makes each player play better. 
So, back to where we started: with success. Specifically, success with safety. Is a successful string of safe days the product of one person’s brilliant action? Absolutely not. It takes a lot of people. Actually, for safety, it takes every single person: were any one person to be hurt, the string ends.
And what is it that every single person does to make that difference? Is it just one thing? 
Of course not. It’s a lot of things. The next time you’re frustrated with the level of safety performance, remember that. Safety performance is a function of a great number of things, big and small.
As to what the small things are, it’s a long list: doing the job well, paying attention in training, following the procedures, giving clear instruction, listening. Then, there’s the occasional big thing, like stopping the job. 
Granted, stopping a job that isn’t safe is the last line of defense, and likely there would have been other failures leading up to that moment. But as lines of defense go, stopping the job is as good as it gets: stop the job, nobody gets hurt, guaranteed. That’s why it plays so big.
It only takes one person to stop a job, although that action might ripple through the rest of what could be a very complex operation, and require a lot of other people to stop their jobs as well.  One more reason why it’s not an easy thing to do.
Still, stopping the job when it’s called for is the toughest part of the challenge. Ultimately, that action falls to the individual, and that individual must be strong.
But the strength of each member is the team.
Paul Balmert
October 2023


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