Thought Leadership


The fear “work-around” to get better reporting

October 28, 2013
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ISHN Guest BlogThe most effective individual in your company may be the employee safety committee member who has gained not only your trust but has done the miraculous job of bringing together the often-bickering functions of your organization. They can bring together union and management like my dear friend Tim Meier at Marathon Refining. They can bring together maintenance and operations, no small feat. And they can drive out fear the way Charlie Daniels beat the Devil out of his fiddle (sorry to my international readers, an inside U.S. joke there but I need it for the following paragraph).

FEAR is the Devil of safety programs just like TRUST is the human SAINT (I personally prefer Saint Francis). If your team had open, honest reporting of hazards and risks you’d be able to target your team’s considerable brainpower into butt-kicking solutions… but you don’t…dang that devil (PG version).

Its absolutely true that management actions can reduce fear, but as any leader trying to change a culture knows, you need those small wins to reinforce the trust your workforce can demonstrate when they open up and start to report.  You need the Fear-Buster (“Who-ya Gonna Call?”... Sorry, another U.S. analogy).

I am learning so much from a railroad I work with. Their journey, one they call “courageous,” is one focused on trust; a journey challenged by its century-plus-old history. But that’s where you find the best Fear-Busters.

I met a group of People-Based Safety employee “facilitators” who, well, facilitated employee teams promoting and using peer-to-peer observation and feedback to improve the lives and body-conservation of fellow employees of the railroad in an area in the U.S. larger than most countries. One of these Saints told me this story.

If I’d been working on the railroad all the livelong day (another U.S. quip – so sorry) I’d come in contact with these switches that I’d have to pull, actually ‘yank,’ to move rails that switch tracks from one line to the other. Exposed to use and weather, these switches can stick and otherwise get quite cumbersome. They call these “Hard to Throw Switches.” I tried one… they are hard to throw.

This facilitator’s team looked at their anonymous behavior observation data and they found that throwing switches was a major area of risk. Old men like me know the consequences of musculoskeletal injuries.

The irony is that the company has a method in place where any employee can report a “Hard to Throw Switch.” Such a report would create an “Out of Service Action” where the switch could not be used until repaired. But, this facilitator explained (probably from experience), submitting an Out of Service Action could result in a really pissed-off supervisor or manager making your life miserable because taking a switch off-line means slowing down rail production….an illusionary no-no according to operational metrics. I say “illusionary” because… well just read on to find out how safety reporting HELPS production.

So it was rare that anyone reported Hard to Throw Switches causing the Out of Service Actions, even though the behavioral observation data showed excessive risk around switch throwing. The employees knew…fear repressed.

Enter the Saint. This facilitator went one-one-one to his peers in this rail yard and told them “We need to know…tell me which switches (in this small country) are defective. I’ll submit the Out of Service Action under my name instead of yours.” Note here, dear readers, that the leaders of this railroad had empowered this young facilitator Saint to do this.

You already know the results but for the record: Out of Service Actions increased over 300%. That small-country service unit now knew where nearly every defective switch was…and there were a lot.

Now one would think that submitting three times more maintenance actions would create a ton of friction with the maintenance staff that had to go fix all this stuff. Enter the Saint who has fostered good relations, as a fellow employee, with all the functions in his/her efforts to build the safety culture. In this case he was able to go to the maintenance staff to mitigate the switch problems (and he made a big deal about their efforts back at the yard).

And now the kicker. The maintenance folks now knew where to target their efforts. And because of the targeted attention to these switches (across this small country) they were also able to do additional regular preventive maintenance on switches and track in heretofore-unknown problem areas. Get my drift?

Preventative maintenance is the oil that keeps big industry rolling. Employee reporting because of saintly actions led to targeted preventative maintenance. In the end, general equipment failures dropped and production went up. Oh, and the risk of throwing a switch dropped off precipitously.  Just guess what happened to Out of Service Actions?

Create the space for these Saints to thrive...
And get those “wins”…
To build trust…
And create the fear work-around.

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