December 01, 2015
Note: This is Part XIV in a series of posts entitled "Evolving Beyond Behaviourism." To read Part XII, please click here.
Safety is not the absence of harm, it’s the presence and development of capability, awareness, active communication and caring.
Energy and construction companies have had to reduce their costs due to low commodity prices. Projects and operating sites have eliminated HSE advisors and technicians. External services, including training support, have been cut.
An oil and gas HSE director in Asia recently told me, “Our safety record is positive; we simply need to take more risk because we can’t afford the programs we have.”
The business unit manager for an oil major told one of his key people just last month, “It’s all about getting the gas online now. We can’t afford to be distracted from that.”
A project manager told his staff, “We were fat, we can no longer afford the ‘nice-to-haves’ we got used to. We can only afford the ‘must-haves.’”
The remarks by the senior managers above are rational and make sense on the surface. Critical action must be taken for a company's health. These include reducing overheads, finding efficiencies, and bringing production on-stream. But one has to question if these actions are consistent with company values, keeping operations safe and producing the desired result for the enterprise?
Unfortunately, as companies have cut costs we’ve seen too many managers stop leading. Again this is understandable. Our clients report they are:
facing the same, or even increased, workload with reduced resources
dealing with re-structuring, right-sizing, cost justification, re-budgeting, re-organization
managing HR actions associated with personnel reduction
re-negotiating contractors’ hours, rosters, contracts
concerned for their own job or career prospects
In the safety environment this results in both a perceived and real erosion of organizational commitment to health and safety. Employees and contractors begin to question whether their company really cares that much about safety. Already poor morale plunges further, and ripples throughout the organization. Safety incidents follow.
Candidly, I know of multiple sites where people are attributing recent serious incidents to this downward spiral of effects from a cost-reduction mentality. But this downward spiral can be offset by a cost-free investment in Safety Leadership.
It has been proven in study after study that people will act in perfect harmony with the environment that’s created by their leaders. How are we as safety leaders overcoming the challenges to safety and morale posed by the current business climate? How are we, as leaders, advancing and strengthening the character and resilience of our organizations?
Traditionally safety is viewed as the lack of harm. In our view, safety is not the lack of something, it’s the ceaseless, unyielding presence and development of capability in the organization. The capability to sense, recognize, prevent, mitigate and respond; to reach across organizational, contractual and technical boundaries (e.g., ops vs. maintenance, construction vs. commissioning). And also to bridge organizational gaps, including those caused by reduced resources.
Safety Management makes an operation more robust and typically takes investment. Safety Leadership makes an organization more resilient. Another way to say this is that Safety Leadership builds the character of the organization. This takes investment too, but the investment is intangible. It is an investment of personal commitment, trust and creativity to find new solutions. It’s not about doing more with less; rather, it’s do less with less and still BE more productive and more safe.
It’s about reducing the administration that might well have been added – especially in safety – enabling leaders and supervisors to connect honestly with people and show them that a safe operation is not budget-based or even systems-based - it’s people-based.
JMJ suggested that perhaps there was a bigger opportunity here. Rather than just reinforcing the rules, what might provide a better overall outcome?
Recently, I spoke with two HSE professionals who each admitted they’d become disheartened. Their energy and personal resolve is flagging. They believe their respective companies are not staying true to their stated values in the face of the current business climate. Their energy and personal resolve is flagging. And they are not alone in this in their project and operational teams.
After engaging honestly and openly in a 1-1 confidential coaching conversation, both found renewed resolve and are taking action to bring safety, productivity and most importantly, people to the fore.
Here are some of the suggestions they came up with, that you might want to consider:
Begin by asking yourself, ‘What motivates me?’ ‘What inspires me?’ ‘Am I distracted or even dismayed right now?’ ‘What goal or principle could inspire me to rise above the downward spiral of the current situation?’ ‘What would bring a tangible sense of purpose to my work?’
Go for a walk, bike ride, or perhaps have a candid conversation over an extended lunch with a trusted colleague, and discover again that you and your leadership are the key to safe operations.
Reach out to others. Ask how they are doing, and listen closely, even energetically, even if you already know the answer. See if new opportunities for action come from a dialogue that begins with open honest communication.
Ask your team, ‘How can we do less with less and be safer and more productive’? Invite your team to brainstorm to identify specific activities that can be removed with no loss of integrity to the operation. Put a few of the ideas into action, as eliminating non-value-added tasks will build credibility and momentum in your group. Take one or more actions yourself so as to model the work needed and embrace the success.
Reflect on the Vision, Mission, Value statements you have on the wall. These typically fade in importance in belt-tightening times. Pick one Value and see how you can have it manifest – become more real -- in your team or project, without incurring cost. Yes, it will take some discussion in a meeting. Ask, ‘How can the presence of this Value bring safe operations to the fore?’ Challenge your team be creative. Returning to first principles, in times of difficulty, is a proven approach to renewed accomplishment.
Actively mentor, both 1-1 and in small groups, when training sessions are cut by budgets. Use real issues, concerns or incidents to develop capability.
Yes we are losing colleagues, friends and knowledge from our ranks. But we can use this time to become more capable, not less, and more values- not cost-driven. It takes leadership and commitment. And it’s worth it.
[Note in service of full disclosure: My company, JMJ, has also cut costs and people. Our employees are less happy and very upset in some cases. As a Partner in the company, I am asking and answering of myself: ‘Is my company being true to its values in this difficult time?’ There’s not a simple answer. It’s a moving target like safety. I am saddened and challenged, but by keeping my eyes on the horizon and rallying with close colleagues, I’m rising to the challenge. All the best to you in your challenges and accomplishments, Mike]