Bill Sagy, the Safety Pioneer You Never Heard Of

By Phil LaDuke

The world works in mysterious ways. This week I wrote an excremental piece that after having written it decided that it never really came together. Sometimes writing is like that. I didn’t panic; this wasn’t writer’s block this was just one of those things that occasionally happen when one writes in the neighborhood of 10,000 words a month. Sometimes it’s a piece I can be proud of and sometime it’s dreck that should never see the light of day. And besides, I had a 3 hour + drive from my home in Detroit to my office in Holland, MI. Driving is a good time to think and there are ample examples of imbeciles taking unreasonable risks.

When I stopped to gas up I took the opportunity to check my messages and got the news. Bill Sagy was dead.

The vast majority of you have never heard of Bill Sagy, and why would you. The work he did with me was confidential as were the amazing results he and I achieved for our clients. I created a system and Bill implemented it. I was the corporate visionary and Bill was the executioner. Originally from the Youngstown Ohio area, Bill was a southerner who by accident of birth was born in the North. When I first needed a coach (I had been doing a duel role as project architect and process coach on engagements prior to this) I reached out to Bill. Bill was working as the quality manager for Mitsubishi in Normal Illinois when I called him to see if he knew anyone “who has a quality background and was willing to work in the South”. He said in his classic deliberate drawl “Yeah, me.” I laughed and told him to think about it and call me back if he came up with anybody. A couple of days later he called me and told me that he was serious.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Bill was an incredible find. He and I first met in 1996 when he was a team lead at GENASYS a joint venture between General Motors and American Sunroof Corporation (ASC). Bill was tagged for the assignment because he had come up through the ranks, beginning his career as a steel worker and Union man in his hometown. Bill eventually rose to the rank of plant manager of our Doraville Georgia plant where him and I got to be really good friends (I was head of Organizational Development and Training). I will spare you the details, but Bill and I had tremendous success in converting a workplace that was primarily comprised of warehouse workers with no manufacturing experience into a high performance workforce. I left ASC to join O/E Learning where I brought my knowledge of culture change to bear on the UAW-Chrysler BEST program that transformed Chrysler’s safety program (research it, it is pretty remarkable what UAW-Chrysler was able to achieve and most of it has been published or presented at professional conferences.) Eventually, I would lead the effort to create SafetyIMPACT! a generic safety transformation methodology that would have incredible results in its own right and for that I needed help. SafetyIMPACT! required a coach; someone who would spend time on the customer site helping to manage the emotional side of culture change. I didn’t want a behavioral scientist who had never seen the inside of a factory and I didn’t want a safety guy who would get too bogged down in the way things are supposed to be to go. I wanted a quality guy, someone how understood Deming and lean and someone unafraid to take chances. That was Bill. While was a bull in a china shop Bill was the stoic and staid implementer. I would dream something up to solve a customer’s problem and Bill would make it work.

Bill never got much credit; it wasn’t his style to take it. Whenever people would compliment him or give him kudos he would just shrug it off and say, “I didn’t do anything, it was all Phil’s idea”. Above all others, Bill never appreciated his contribution. When one North Carolina plant manager called me a “used car salesman” (I tend to talk and act too fast for many in the South) they took comfort in Bill’s affableness and slow, deliberate approach felt familiar and comfortable. You can’t fake that. One of my customers (and friend) once told me that when his wife asked how dinner was Phil went he said, “oh it was good, but you spend time with Phil it seems like eventually it turns into a commercial”. People didn’t feel that way with Bill. Bill was a good ole boy in the most positive sense of that word. He genuinely cared about people was able to get people to care as well without ever coming off as self-righteous, preachy, or softheaded.

If Bill were here today he would probably shrug and tell you that I taught him everything there is to know about safety culture transformation, but as much as I may have taught him, he taught me much and more. Working with him allowed me to take our model of safety transformation to the next level and beyond. He and I were in the process of putting together another deal that would have reunited us as a team. It’s a moot point now, but it will always leave me thinking “what if?”

At this point, the doctors aren’t sure what killed Bill. In directly it may have been his job that killed him. Years ago, Bill hurt his back on the job. He worked through the pain because the damage to his disc was too dangerous for surgery. Recently, after decades of on again off again pain Bill went in for laparoscopic surgery to have the disc repaired. When I spoke to him about three weeks ago he was recovering and looking forward to working with me again. It’s not yet known how he contracted the bacterial infection that would kill him, but I suspect (with no foundation whatsoever beyond the coincidental timing) he contracted it via his surgery. If it did than Bill died from a work related injury that, like countless thousands of workplace injuries and illnesses that will never be recorded as job-related. Maybe injuries aren’t declining after all. Maybe they are just taking longer and longer to kill workers. I’ll miss Bill, but I am more fortunate than you. I had the fortune to work with Bill and count him as a friend.