Featured image depicting Is safety over-managed and under-led?

Is safety over-managed and under-led?

“Correcting bad behavior – trying to fix people – will not lead to sustained safety performance improvement. We need to give the time, energy and thinking to safety leadership that we give to safety management.”

By Mike Goddu  |  July 22, 2022

Mike Goddu, JMJ Managing Director – Major Capital Projects, discusses the knee-jerk response managers often have when a safety incident occurs. He asks whether, by looking to place blame with our workers, we are missing an opportunity for leaders at all levels to learn critical lessons.

In a recent high-level leadership meeting, an incident was discussed. A fire had destroyed an operating unit in a downstream petrochemical plant. Some months prior to the incident, a worker had taken matters into his own hands, reworking a leaky line with unapproved technique and material. Sure enough, it later failed. Root Cause Analysis revealed the worker had not followed procedure, was inadequately supervised, and had violated a “Cardinal Rule.” The worker and supervisor were both disciplined. Problem solved. Safety managers in the meeting were satisfied that their safety system, philosophy, and consequences were justly applied.   

Getting to the real root of the problem

The discussion was closed until I spoke up, pointing out the opening sentence in the case, “A faulty pump, known to have chronically leaked for years.” Clearly this was an ongoing problem the worker and supervisor faced. How many times had the worker and his colleagues kept the operation running by using a non-approved fix for the chronic leak? I also challenged the group, “How many of you have ever been put in the position of repeatedly fixing a leaky pump in the face of other important constraints – inadequate resources, training or time?”

I then asked, “What is the learning for you as leaders? Why did the worker fix that chronic leak the way he did? Was it because he wasn’t paying attention, was malicious or made a ‘bad’ choice?” Certainly, his actions triggered the accident, but what was the smoking gun? 

Here’s my take on this situation: The managers focused entirely on the worker’s behavior and pronounced judgment on him and his supervisor. By doing so, the people who were really at the root of the problem, namely leadership at multiple levels of the organization, failed to learn a critical lesson.

People in positions of authority and expertise create the operating structure, context, and conditions in which people behave. They have the duty and responsibility to practice excellent safety management and leadership.  

Why was a chronic leak tolerated? Perhaps it never made the “safety critical” list on that site, or was repeatedly crossed off the maintenance list in a company that has faced constant “value-adding” initiatives. 

Managers assert, “safety is a value,” yet can be blind to chronic leaks or minor spills. When an incident occurs, are they held accountable rather than the worker and supervisor closest to the incident?

More is required from leaders at all levels

When something (a leaky line) becomes acceptable, it’s a failure of safety leadership on the part of line and executive management. These are the people who play the critical role in establishing the resources, culture, and value for safety in the workplace. The managers responsible for HSE, maintenance and other related functions certainly have important roles to play, but these are secondary to the responsibility for safety held by project, operations, plant and managing directors.

Why are companies and sites so slow to apply this learning?

Most of us are conversant regarding safety leadership: “We must model good behavior. We must walk the talk. We must be visible. We must set the culture. We need to be accountable.” These responses are valid. However, they’re also superficial, providing little guidance or inspiration. The thinking and language used is limited and short-sighted. It’s the same kind of language that judges workers and finds their behavior lacking.

The distinction between safety leaders and safety management is an important one

Safety management: Although this is quite complicated, especially in operating organizations, it can be summarized in two words, ‘prevention’ and ‘control.’ Prevention includes assessment, identification, analysis and preparation. Control includes engineering, mitigation, response, measurement and reporting. 

Safety leadership: There are entire libraries devoted to leadership, but safety leadership can be simply summarized as ‘perspective’ and ‘catalyst’. Perspective includes providing context, vision, and values. It establishes standards and practices, and a demonstrated commitment to continuous improvement. Catalyst includes causing and leading positive change and inspiring and influencing others. Companies with sustained, excellent safety performance develop and practice safety leadership as explicitly, and committedly as safety management. 

Safety is over-managed and under-led

One thing we can be certain of is that correcting bad behavior – trying to fix people – will not lead to sustained safety performance improvement. We need to give the time, energy and thinking to safety leadership that we give to safety management.

In my next blog, ‘Safety leadership: How to achieve new levels of safety performance’, I will explore the distinction between safety leadership and safety management, as well as delving deeper into the ‘perspective’ aspect of leadership.

If you would like to share your thoughts on safety leadership versus safety management or want to discuss how JMJ can help your safety leaders develop perspective and become catalysts, contact us. www.jmj.com

About JMJ

For over three decades, JMJ has been delivering impactful cultural change to help executives, leaders and front-line workers transform safety, sustainability, and business performance. We combine the deep experience of our people with our proprietary Transformation Cloud platform to deliver breakthrough results, making the impossible possible. www.jmj.com

Have questions or want more information? Contact us