The safety professional has been falling in status of late. I suppose one could blame the economy after all, troubled companies just don’t have the money that they might have ordinarily spent on new fangled safety processes. One could also blame the politicians—some the vacuous gas bags that pass as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have characterized safety as costing jobs, being overly protective of workers, and in general needlessly wasting business’s valuable time. But I prefer to place the blame squarely on the safety professionals themselves. Safety, in its present form, really hasn’t been around that long. Sure there have been attempts to protect workers—most notably the efforts of organized labour to improve working conditions and the safety of the work environment—but safety as a mega industry is a relatively new phenomenon. The rise of safety has seen the function move from the position companies stuck good-natured and well-meaning dim-wits to the rise of snake oil salesmen who fancy themselves Machiavellian grand master puppeteers capable of manipulating the behavior of the workers with a bell and some pizza. And as funds get tighter and resources increasingly scarce there isn’t a whole lot of adaptation happening in the safety community. Too many safety professionals still try to compel that which they cannot inspire. After 15 odd years of trying to change things Safety remains a police force, although now some try to do police the populace with complex schemes dressed as culture change. When the environment changes only the most adaptable are able to survive and thrive. And while changes to the business landscape have been profound the reaction from the safety community have been all but imperceptible. To find one of the best examples of the “let them eat cake” mentality one need not look very far. The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is sponsoring a people-to-people safety delegation to Brazil. The cost per individual is substantial, and it’s fair to say that most of the participates won’t be doing so on their own dimes. I am not trying to denigrate the program, although personally I can’t find a sound business justification for sending a safety professional to Brazil to attend meetings with their South American peers. But forget the specifics of this program and focus, if you will, on how out of touch a safety professional has to be to even suggest that his or her employer. Even with my relationships with several safety magazines I wouldn’t dream of suggesting they fund this boondoggle. The problems facing the safety profession go deeper than expecting companies to make expenditures on questionable trips. Safety still hasn’t found its Deming, when Deming developed his revolutionary approach to quality, an approach that would ultimately form the foundation for Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma, he didn’t immediately go door-to-door like Moze Pray hawking Dixie Bibles. Safety professionals, conversely, show very little decorum in their haste to commercialize every half-baked scheme that flashes across their minds. And if the theory has holes in it, no problem, just sponsor a research study that supports your junk science. A good safety process should be malleable and evolve over time. Once an organization has mastered compliance it needs to concentrate on lowering injuries through hazard management. Solid hazard management works very well in injury reduction, but too often safety professionals lose steam after the low-hanging fruit has been picked. From there Safety professional need to be prepared to tackle the tough problems of serious injuries occurring seemingly randomly. To face those challenges safety professionals need to have a significantly deeper understanding of probability and statistics. Throughout this evolution safety professionals need to do a better job at linking their activities to strategic initiatives of the overall organization. If Safety is going to survive it needs act quickly and decisively. First, safety professionals have to demonstrate the value they provide to the organization and to advertise the contributions that they make to the overall operating efficiency. If your overly complex safety initiatives are costing the company more than it can ever hope to recoup you need to simplify your process and connect it to the continuous improvement of business systems. If Safety can’t directly impact the bottom line, it can indirectly impact the cost of injuries by reducing its expenditures, or at very least it can stop pissing away profits on non-essential safety activities. The economy will eventually rebound and recover, but unless Safety begins to see itself as a partner in making the workplace more efficient it may not survive in any meaningful way. Those safety professionals who ignore the changes in the business landscape will go the way of the Moa, the dodo, and the Tasmanian Tiger, but hell, they got a free trip to Brazil out of it.
Just Culture, a concept James Reason proffered decades ago is growing in popularity. At its essential core Just Culture is pretty simple: people make mistakes and punishing people for making honest mistakes is a basic form of injustice. Reason, and his successors, argue that organizations must foster blame-free environments where workers are encouraged to report mistakes and near miss if they hope to ever address the root causes of workplace injuries.
But implementing a just culture is far more difficult than merely deciding not to punish people for screwing up. Far too many business leaders are unable to see past their petty biases and the traditional legal department party line that a blame-free culture needlessly and recklessly exposes organizations from malpractice lawsuits or other liabilities. This is unfortunate. So many business leaders are afraid to do what is right in favor of what is safe.
For a just culture to take hold and blossom organizations need a different sort of leader. A Just culture needs to be led by what I describe as just leaders, and these executives are a rarity.
Traits of a Just Leader
Just leaders share characteristics that set them apart from the pack. These leaders see themselves as leaders first and foremost and they live there lives by a code of conduct that is set not be some artificial external criteria but by their personal values.
It takes a lot of moral fortitude to stand up to corporate attorneys who advise you on a course of action that pits you against your core values. If the corporate attorney insists that you hang someone out to dry, it’s tempting to throw someone under the bus and blame the oily skinned legal department (or corporate communication or IT). It takes real courage to stand up to the corporate pitch fork and torch toting mob screaming for the blood of some hapless bureaucrat who mad a bad decision in good faith, but that’s what a just leader does. A just leader recognizes that courage lies not fearlessness, but in recognizing one’s fear and forging forward despite them.
A just leader is able to clearly articulate his or her values and institutionalize those values into a work culture that is fair and just.
It’s scary what passes for vision these days. Corruption is rampant, which one could argue was always the case, but even when Chief Tammany bore witness through his lifeless wooden eyes, people recognized corruption, incompetence and dare I say it, corporate sin. Just leaders need vision and that vision must take them beyond what’s good for themselves and their stockholders. Just leaders know that they cast long shadows and that to create an organization that will endure it takes more than their own skills and includes the skills of most everyone in the organization.
Recent years have seen the growth of a sickening cottage industry—executives who take companies into bankruptcy. This is pointedly obvious in the auto industry. There are a handful of executives whose only value seems to be screwing people out of money to which they are legally entitled via bankruptcy. These slim-witted weasels are hired to bankrupt a company not as a last resort reset of the company’s debts but as a corporate strategy.
A just leader looks beyond the goals by which his or her compensation is based and instead focuses on how organizations can serve the needs of their stock holders, their environments, their employees, and their customers. A good leader knows the importance of being a good corporate citizen.
Rudyard Kipling once wrote “if you can trust yourself while all men doubt you while still allowing for the doubting too.” Just leaders do this by consistently holding the line as others in their industry are melting down in panic. Because these leaders have a clear cut vision you can always predict what they will do in a crisis, you can set your watch by them and trust they will do what is required even if it is painful
Consistency isn’t easy, especially when an industry is melting down. But no one will ever admit mistakes without knowing exactly what consequences are likely to befall them. So unless a leader can consistently react to unexpected circumstances a just culture can never emerge.
A just leader cannot expect others to be forth coming about their mistakes unless he or she clearly acknowledges his or her own mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes and for a leader to gloss over his or her business faux pas is the height of arrogance and hubris. Just leaders aren’t afraid to acknowledge their mistakes and the best of them learn from their mistakes and teach others the lessons they learned.
Honesty transcends being straight-forward with board members, the media, the workers, the unions, and the stockholders and reaches the depths of the just leader’s subconscious and lays bare the soul, in short the just leader is MOST honest with him- or herself.
Just leaders don’t just know the difference between right and wrong, they also know the difference between right and legal. In this day and age it’s easy to hide behind the law and commit corporate atrocities. For most leaders doing something heinous is softened a bit if you can get your corporate lobbyist to get it legalized first. Just leaders worry about what is right, not what is legal. And when they act with integrity and transparency they need not worry about investigations or accusations.
Just leaders hold themselves to a higher standard than the one to which they hold all others and the one against which society measures them. And when it comes to creating a just cultures having the right leaders is more important than having the right consultants, the right tag lines, or even the right policies.
We all know Murphy’s Law— anything that can go wrong will go wrong but far fewer know Pascals Gambit, Occams Razor, or Parkinson’s Law. And this week I thought I would explore how these laws govern safety and how we can use these laws to change the way we think about Safety.
Murphy’s Laws and Its Bastards
Murphy’s first law Laws is probably the most quoted of all the law’s that are supposed to govern business (if not life itself.) Murphy’s Law is interesting not only in its simplicity but because it is the bastard child of another, older law: Sod’s Law.
“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”
The widely known law proffered by a little known author and attributed to another better-known one holds that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. An admittedly bleak perspective and one that is easy enough to invalidate (after all Sod had the huevos to speak in absolutes where many, myself included, use weasel words like “many” or “likely”—using these words I need only produce one example to make my statement true whereas I need only produce a single exception to ?’s law to discredit it, but then I digress.) In terms of safety we would be wise to incorporate ?’s law into our mindset. Shit happens. And sometimes the shit that happens comes back to bite us in lethal or fatal way. I used to get derided by safety professionals when ever I would say this. A roar would go up not heard since Jesus before the Sanhedrin. “Heresy!! Blasphemer!! Or worse yet the dripping condescension of a smirking jerk in the audience at a conference. I guess I was in good company. But the fact remains that while there is always a chance that we can get blindsided by some unanticipated factor, most (yes I said, “most”) injuries happen from multiple variables working in concert with a catalyst. So we can reduce the probability that the things that can go wrong won’t go wrong, but it’s a whole lot of work, and let’s face it, we have our fair share of lazy working in our field.
If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong
At first blush, Murphy’s first law seems indistinguishable from Sod’s Law, but the importance while subtle is important for safety professionals. Murphy’s Law is a little less fatalistic than Sod’s Law, Murphy allows that there may be some possibility than things won’t go wrong, at least not immediately. This may be a semantic difference but it’s my blog and I’ll pick nits if I want to. In either case, both Sod and Murphy agree that we need to spend our efforts and energies determining what can go wrong and how we can reduce the probability that it won’t. This thinking is at the heart of all safety processes and while it sounds rational, it ignores both Murphy’s and Sod’s Laws—that if there is a possibility that something can go wrong we need to expect that it will. So trying to prevent something from going wrong is impossible since the probability of catastrophe is never reduced to zero percent.
Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives
Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment
Another interesting law at play in the workplace is Finagle’s Law of Dynamic Negatives which states that Anything that can go wrong will—at the worst possible moment. This expectation should help safety professionals to understand the danger of collaborative hazards—that is, those conditions, whether behavioral, mechanical, or environmental that act in concert with one another to either create a catalyst for disaster or causing the hazard outright. This mindset should forewarn the safety professional against seeing a hazard condition in a vacuum or without context, which sadly many behavior based safety programs actively encourage.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Perhaps the most destructive force operating in the workplace, and safety, is Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law holds that any task will expand to the time allotted to perform it. Wasting time eats at productivity like a cancer, and yet Safety professionals gleefully choke the organization’s calendar with some sort of safety dog and pony show. One and half hour weekly safety meetings, safety BINGOs, safety talks, Job Hazard Analyses, and…well the list goes on and on. Safety professionals need to be mindful of Parkinson’s Law and reduce both the number of tasks and the length allotted to that time. Time is money and every task performed in the name of safety had better see a threefold return on the time it consumes.
“We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.”
Occam’s Razor has been bastardized and reconstituted to the point where many people believe it to be “the simplest explanation is usually correct”. Safety professionals need to heed the advice as originally written and shun the adulterated version. Basically safety professionals need to draw no conclusions and stay focused on researching the root cause of injuries and suspend any preconceived notions about the situations;.
 Actually this is NOT Murphy’s Law (Murphy had numerous laws and “ everything that can go wrong will go wrong” is in fact a direct quote of the older and lesser known Sod’s Law but most people wrongly attribute it to Murphy so this gives me the opportunity to pander to the great unwashed while still being a pedantic know-it-all jerk.