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Addition by subtraction: Can it work in your safety program?

January 30, 2013
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The ISHN BlogThe Sunday New York Times (Jan. 20) had an article, “The Art of Adding Through Taking Away,” with the “art” both philosophical and pragmatic. The underlying theme should be familiar to many of you: it is a variation of Keep it Simple, Stupid (KISS), dumb it down, keep it short and sweet, don’t complicate matters, don’t over-think.

The article quotes two fountains of wisdom. First, the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu of 2,500 years ago:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.

The second pearl comes from well-known management guru Jim Collins: “A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not.”

You can apply this to music, books, theatre plays, film, paintings, poems, speeches, sermons etc. The classic case of less is more:  Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address clocked in at 272 words, and took the President two minutes to deliver.

Collins calls this “the discipline to discard what does not fit.”

Being able to detach yourself helps

So, take a look around. What parts of your safety program don’t fit?  You have to be a bit cold-blooded to, as Collins urges: “cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort.”

Being able to detach yourself helps. In the practice of editing text, we were taught in journalism school to always be prepared to “kill your darlings.” Your darlings being your pieces of writing that please you the most, but alas, in the final harsh editorial analysis just don’t belong. Nifty, clever lines that bring no new information or understanding to the text; instead, weighing it down, perhaps obscuring important details already there.

So again, take a look at your safety program and all its component parts. How thick is your safety manual? Or if you’re paperless, how many pages do you scroll through on a computer screen.?

Some well-intentioned safety programs in industry tend to expand like the size of the federal government. Layering program on top of program. Making room for new and/or revised rules, regulations, procedures for everything from drug testing to discipline to incentive contests to wearing FR clothing or Hi-Viz clothing to a new audit scoring system to new ways to make safety suggestions to new definitions of a “near miss” to a new method for reporting hazards and risky behaviors anonymously to using new safety “apps.”

Thinning our your safety program

It’s pretty much all addition. Where is the subtraction? (Not counting deletions forced on you by budget cuts.)

I’m talking about taking, on your own initiative, your own well-thought-out whacks at thinning your safety program, making it less bureaucratic, easier for employees to see where safety’s values lie.

Of course this editing exercise will be easier if you are new to your company and your safety job. Or if you’ve been promoted from within and inherit an overweight safety program in need of a diet. You’re killing someone else’s darlings, not your own.

The most challenging task is to edit yourself. Where will “less is more” and simplicity be of benefit? It could be the length of your safety talks. Length of safety meetings and training sessions. Your PowerPoint presentations to management. Your use of jargon and technical language. The number of initiatives you launch annually. The size of your safety committee. Your number of goals and objectives.

Left unchecked, safety programs accumulate “flavor of the month” upon “flavor of the month” themes, participation schemes, contests, banners, posters and trinkets.

Don’t fall prey to our Age of Excess. To thine own self, be a hard editor.

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