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 (, 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 can be reached at

V. Scott Pignolet

October 1, 2003

Mistake Number 8: Driving Out All Fear

"Drive out fear."-W. Edwards Deming

What Peter Drucker did for how we manage our business, Dr. Edwards Deming did for how well we make our products.

Deming came to public prominence late in his life. Born at the start of the 20th century, he was educated in mathematics and physics. He graduated at the height of the Great Depression, managing to find work in the United States Department of Agriculture. In the late 1930s, he joined the Census Bureau, where his training in statistical sampling methods proved useful in the 1940 Census.

Then things started getting interesting. With a world war going on, Deming put his knowledge about statistical sampling methods on the factory floor, helping to dramatically improve the product quality of U.S. war materials. In the 1950s, he was invited to Japan to help rebuild their manufacturing sector. What worked in our factories worked just as well in theirs.

Fast forward to the 1980s, where we began to fully appreciate what the Japanese had accomplished in product quality of everything from automobiles to consumer electronics. They did that following the advice of a statistician who got his start counting cows and people. The Japanese honored Deming by naming their national quality award in his honor.

When we finally woke up to the "quality revolution" that had been taking place in the manufacturing sector, there to help us was the towering figure of W. Edwards Deming. Deming was in his 80s, but still a commanding figure, both intellectually and physically. (We still remember Deming’s photo, taken with our plant quality manager: the good doctor stood every bit of 6 foot, 8 inches.)

In his years of working with industrial clients, Deming built what many of us in the manufacturing management business would learn as his "14 Absolutes of Quality." These were the principles and practices Deming believed absolutely essential for managers to follow to achieve the highest standards of product and service quality. It was great stuff to pay attention to for us managers.

In the middle of his list of absolutes was the proviso to "Drive out fear." Deming believed that, in the campaign to improve quality, fear of getting in trouble for making defective products and reporting quality problems was a major roadblock to progress. We’re sure he had plenty of firsthand experience that led him to that conclusion.

Management can’t fix what it doesn’t know. Deming wisely concluded that the fear of reprisal from management kept many employees from reporting product quality problems. The guys out in the warehouse would rather ship a defective product and let the customer figure out there was a problem: surely, management wouldn’t fire the customer when they told them there was a problem. Of course, having the customer finding the defect was never good for sales.

If Deming’s absolute of "Drive out Fear" was right for quality improvement, why wouldn’t it be just as good for improving safety? More than a few of us thought so, and tried to apply the same concept to managing safety performance.

It sounded like a great idea. People would tell the truth during investigations and report all their near misses. All we had to do was tell them that nothing bad would happen to them if they did so. Talk about driving out fear!

However, we failed to do what Deming did, as he built up his absolutes: think critically about the implication of the concept. Deming built his absolutes over a career that spanned more than 60 years. Most of us were from the "One Minute Manager" school: we figured: "That sounds like a good idea. Let’s give it a try and see how it works."

It didn’t work nearly as well as we thought. Employees didn’t trust us in the first place not to take action when they told us the truth. The few who did were extremely disappointed in the cases where we didn’t–or couldn’t–keep our word. Sometimes what they told us had to be dealt with–including their own choice of bad behavior.

If we had thought critically about the subject of "driving out fear" as it relates to safety, our conversation might have looked like this:

Drive out fear. Fear of what? The answer is consequences. It’s the consequences that employees fear. When it comes to making a quality product, we wish they wouldn’t fear consequences: if we have a product quality problem, we’re better off knowing that than having our customers find it for us.

Are the consequences of making and shipping a defective product the same as a serious injury to our employees who make the product? The answer is no (unless the product defect causes injury to someone else). Our forklift operator breaking his leg is far worse than shipping a batch of paint that doesn’t match the color specification. The paint can always be returned.

On the other hand, if the forklift operator had a near miss incident-nearly running over someone, would we be better off knowing about it? Sure we would. What would prevent the operator from reporting that near miss?

Fear that he would get in trouble, which might happen if he admitted that he was driving way too fast and not paying attention when he nearly hit that guy in the warehouse.

So, our forklift operator makes the calculation of consequences: better to be safe (from management) and not report the near miss than run the risk of getting in trouble. "Getting in trouble" is the consequence that people fear. It keeps them from telling management what’s really going on out there.

Is that the greatest consequence that our forklift operator should fear? Give the question more than a moment of thought, and a far greater fear emerges: the fear of doing serious harm to a co-worker. How would anyone feel having to go through the rest of their life knowing they were responsible for the permanent injury–or death–of someone with whom they worked?

What should everyone who works fear the most? It’s not making a defective product, or even getting chewed out for not being careful. It’s doing something that gets him, or someone else, seriously hurt. Fearing those consequences is a good thing. It’s a fear that everyone should want to increase, not drive out.

Sure, along the way, you have to deal with people who choose fear of discipline as their principal motive. If that gets them to follow the safety rules and pay attention to what they’re doing, that’s not all bad. What motivates many of us to obey the speed limits is the thought that there just might be a cop around that next curve in the road.

The fundamental motivation to follow the safety rules and work safely should be driven by fear of what an accident would do to the life of the person who got hurt. You never want to drive out that fear.

Instead of following Deming, we should have chosen to follow the advice of Edmund Burke: "Early and provident fear is the mother of safety."

Not recognizing that truth is one of the mistakes that many of us have made.

"The difference between luck and skill are seldom apparent in the short term."-Investment Advice

Mistake Number 7: Failing to Appreciate What Managers Really Impact

The management team has gathered around the conference table in an emergency meeting. The urgent topic: what to do to stanch the rising tide of accidents and injuries?

It’s a familiar scene to any line manager who’s been out on the field for very long. Safety performance never follows a straight line. Like competitive athletics, safety performance is made up of streaks and slumps. Even places with the best safety numbers hit the occasional downdraft, leading to meetings like the one just described.

These crisis meetings are guaranteed to produce a flurry of activity, all designed to have an immediate and substantial impact on safety performance. We "round up the usual suspects." You know what they look like: send a letter urging everyone to pay more attention to what they’re doing; show up at safety meetings with the same message; call a time-out for safety; solve some specific problem that was a factor in a recent accident.

Then we sit back and hope it works.

Fortunately, it usually doesn’t take long for performance to get better. When it does, it confirms what we knew all along: get us as managers involved in the details of managing safety performance, and we’ll do it better than anyone else around. Are we good or what?

Once we’re finished fixing "the safety problem" we get back to working on all the other business problems we face every day.

If he were there to watch all this, W. Edwards Deming would be rolling on the floor, laughing. As Deming understood so well, what we witnessed was random variation. The esteemed consultant would explain the concept: everything in life has variability. When the numbers go one way, they’ll eventually go the other way. To the statisticians, the term of art is "regression to the mean." It’s the mean–the long-term trend line–that’s what’s important, not the short term fluctuations in performance.

The phenomenon has fooled us time after time. When we jump in and act, we see results; performance improves. We think we’re having an impact on performance. It has to be the direct result of our good work. Of course, all that reinforces all the wrong managerial behavior.

The truth is that we’d have seen the same result if we had gone on vacation. It’s the one of the biggest mistakes managers make managing safety performance. But it’s only half the story.

While we overstate the short-term impact of our direct involvement in pulling the strings to improve performance, we consistently under-appreciate the long-term impact of our performance as managers. That trend line that safety performance regresses to is essentially the measure of our competency as line managers.

All along, we should have been thinking about safety performance this way.

Let’s accept as a given that safety performance varies significantly from one industry group to another. For a lot of reasons, the average performer in the plastics manufacturing business has an injury rate that’s different from construction or the oil-field service industry. Within each industry group, though, the means and method to perform the work are roughly equal; the exposure to job safety hazards is comparable.

That being the case, what separates the performance of the best and the worst performers within the industry group? It must be the collective competency of management, those who lead and manage safety performance.

It used to be said of legendary football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant that "he could take his team and beat yours; then take your team and beat his."

Of course, that’s not how most of us saw the situation. Those other guys in our peer group of companies–the one’s getting the best results–always had something going for them that we didn’t. They had safety incentives, a better workforce, people who knew they shouldn’t report injuries, or better tools and equipment. When we couldn’t explain it any other way, then they just were "luckier than we were."

Can you hear Deming laughing?

Industry group comparisons put everyone on equal footing; in the long term, luck gets canceled out. We’re left to face the fact that we’re getting exactly what we deserve: the best managers get the best performance. It’s that simple.

It’s all too common for us managers to fail to fully appreciate our impact on performance. We think it’s far too great in the short term, and we don’t recognize that, in the long term, our results speak volumes about our performance as managers.

Peter Drucker once said: "Companies don’t compete; managers compete."

It’s a huge mistake, and one of the biggest mistakes managers make managing safety performance.