The Top 10 Mistakes in Managing Safety Performance

Paul Balmert

Paul Balmert is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and his career in chemical manufacturing spans 30 years. In 2000, Mr. Balmert formed Balmert Consulting (www.balmert.com), a consulting practice that is principally focused on improving operations execution, including improving the management effectiveness in leading and managing safety performance. Mr. Balmert is the author of the best-selling book Alive and Well at the End of the Day; The Supervisor’s Guide to Managing Safety in Operations. He may be reached at pdbalmert@balmert.com.

V. Scott Pignolet

November 1, 2004

"Execution is the name of the game."-Paul Balmert

Managing safety performance–sending everyone home safe at the end of the day–is fundamentally a game of execution. No matter how good the game plan–policies, procedures and programs–when it comes to bottom line safety performance, the game is won or lost on the field.

If execution is the difference that makes the difference, who manages execution?

In the movie “Chicago,” there’s a song about a virtually invisible character, "Mr. Cellophane," with a line that goes, "You can walk right by me, see right through me, and never notice me at all." In just about every operation, there’s an entire level of "Mr. Cellophanes," and these are the people who are really responsible for managing execution. The organization’s safety performance is largely determined by how well they perform that duty.

The Organization Pyramid

Forty-five centuries ago, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt commissioned one of history’s greatest construction projects–the pyramids. We suspect those employed on the project promptly returned the favor by naming the organization hierarchy in their honor. So was born the "organization pyramid."

You know the theory: The higher up the pyramid you go, the more important the manager. Sitting at the pinnacle is the most important manager in the company. The job of the rest of the enterprise is merely to carry out the goals set by the leader.

Everyone who has ever worked in an organization knows there is a certain element of truth in all this. But, there is another way to think about the question of importance on the management pecking order. It begins by considering where economic value in the enterprise is created. After all, in the theory of the firm, the reason the enterprise exists is to create economic value for the benefit of the owners.

In that sense, any business can be thought of as a printing press, designed to print money for the owners. Every good business owner knows exactly where the printing press for the business is found. In the pharmaceutical business, the printing press is in the research lab: Develop a blockbuster new drug, and the company prospers. In the athletic footwear business, designers create most of the value: The right, hot new shoe will sell off the shelves.

What about industry? In an industrial business, it’s easy to find the printing press: All you have to do is look in operations. That’s because industry is defined by making "things," whether the things happen to be steel, cars or valves.

Sure, there are plenty of other factors in play, but the ability to make products effectively and efficiently largely determines the financial success of the business. Value is created only when products are made. Cease making the product, and there’s no revenue; without cash, it’s a financial crisis. It’s just that simple.

For industrial services businesses such as painting, blasting, cleaning and repairing, the value-creation process is fundamentally the same, determined when service is delivered: Scaffolds are built; steel is blasted; paint is applied. But we know all that.

Take the logic back to the organization pyramid in an industrial or industrial services business, and it’s readily apparent that the value-creating level of the enterprise is found not at the top, but right at the bottom. Those building blocks forming the foundation of the enterprise are the folks running the printing press-and determining the fate of everyone else.

The real owners of the business–usually shareholders–get that. When a publicly traded industrial company suffers a major production outage, the stock price normally falls the next trading session; when an energy exploration and production company successfully brings a major new well into production, the share price increases. By comparison, announce a business reorganization, and the market will usually wait to determine the real impact.

Now that we understand that the base of the organization creates the value, we can appreciate that the role of everyone else in the industrial organization should be to help make that happen. It makes perfect sense, but quality guru Phillip Crosby once remarked, "I worked for 10 years before I found out that management was supposed to be there to help me."

Of all those management levels sitting above those who create value, who do you think is in the best position to provide help–on everything from production and quality to working safely? It’s the front-line supervisor: AKA, Mr. Cellophane.

Managing Safety on the Front Line

Consider the pivotal role played by front-line supervisors in the work processes that largely determine who goes home safe. The front-line supervisor is the member of management most likely to:

  • Set and communicate work standards;

  • Teach the right way to do the job;

  • Determine who’s qualified to perform the work;

  • Observe employees in action;

  • Provide performance feedback-positive and corrective;

  • Roll out safety policies and procedures;

  • Manage safety suggestions;

  • Run safety meetings;

  • Deal with injuries and near-misses.

Get these management practices right, and the odds overwhelmingly favor working safely.

Add them all up, and the result amounts to good, old-fashioned execution. The real story is that front-line supervisors have more control and influence over execution than any other level of management in the enterprise. When they do their jobs well, the team works safely.

What Were We Missing?

Why is it that so many of us mangers have failed to appreciate the critical role of the supervisor in determining execution? It seemed like any time we weren’t happy with safety performance, the last thing we’d ever think about was how to manage execution better. We never thought to ask the supervisors what they were seeing "out on the field." Instead, we would figure the problem out, and then roll out an ad campaign, write letters, call a time out for safety, or round up a few of the usual suspects.

Worse, we often put our best efforts into undermining or eliminating the role of the supervisor. In the name of high-performance work redesign, more than a few of us wiped out the job entirely. Sometimes that worked, and sometimes we’d reinstate the position after performance deteriorated. The very first step in some peer safety observation processes is to invite the front-line supervisor out of the process–only to later lament the need for leadership. Top management would meet with those doing the work–who would then often bash their immediate supervisors. All the while, we’d complain about how weak our front-line supervisors were.

Mr. Cellophane, No More!

Every time a poll is taken of the people doing the work, guess which level of management always gets voted "most trusted"? It’s never any of us in middle or upper management. For more than 50 years, in surveys done around the globe, front-line supervisors consistently were voted the most trusted members of management.

In retrospect, the biggest mistake we made managing safety performance began when we overlooked the simple virtues of execution in determining safety results. We compounded our error by failing to take full advantage of the powerful role that front-line supervisors could play in managing execution.

What we should have done was give them all the help they needed to execute our game plan for safety. If we’d paid attention to Crosby’s advice on the role of management in helping others, we would have spent more of our efforts managing safety performance by developing the leadership skills of front-line supervisors; providing them the support they need, and focusing on enabling their success. Had we done that, we would have had even better success managing safety performance–and probably spent a whole lot less effort in the process.

Front-line supervisors have the most control and influence over execution. That our generation of managers was so inclined to miss that is the biggest mistake we made managing safety performance.

Front-line supervisors manage execution, and execution determines success. Get it right, and the organization wins, and people go home safe.