A friend recently forwarded an excellent BuzzFeedNEWS article to me about an oil company whose “executives are struggling to ‘reset’ the company’s safety culture.” I won’t come out and say the name of the company––their initials are B and P.
Anyway, this BP has had at least 27 accidents, including five that risked the lives of dozens of works, at their Alaska oil and gas operation sites in 2017. After one of the more serious incidents, the article reveals that the BP Alaska President wrote the following: “If there had been an ignition source, we might have lost colleagues. We must change now; we must have a reset.”
Other BP officials are also quoted:
“No other business objective is more important than our safety performance.”
“We’re making the same mistakes me made 40 years ago.”
I feel for this president. Based on what I’ve read about her in this feature and others, I’ve concluded that she has the best intentions. She and other BP top brass mean it when they say, “The safety of our workers and protection of the environment are BP’s top priorities.” But let’s be honest: that quote reads like “President speak,” prepared by some lawyer.
I wish I could sit down with the BP President (and other leaders in her situation) and point out a few things to her. I imagine our conversation going something like this:
Cort Dial: “You say the safety of your workers and protection of the environment are BP’s top priorities.”
President: “I do, and I mean that with all of my heart.”
CD: “I know you do. But can I point out a few things that might make your safety leadership more effective?”
P: “Please do.”
CD: “First of all, I do not believe safety is a priority. Priorities are things that you can rank based on their importance. In a ranking, some things are going to be defined as more important than others. Do you agree?”
P: “I agree. But if they’re not priorities, what are they? Don’t give me the old argument that ‘safety is not a priority, it’s a value.’ That’s just semantics.”
CD: “I won’t, but I do want to illuminate something. You do not employ ‘workers.’ Workers are things––objects. The humans who you compensate for their energy and effort are not workers. They’re people. ‘People’ comes from a French word peuple, and the direct translation of it into today’s English is ‘humans’ or ‘humanity.’”
P: “It’s all interesting, but I’m not sure I understand your point.”
CD: “You don’t employ workers, and neither did I when I was a manager. We work with people, and people are not things. They’re sacred beings. That makes the health, safety, and well-being of these people sacred––on an entirely different level than your other business priorities. You have important goals and key imperatives, but I’d argue that none of them are sacred, imbued with the essence of what it is to be a human being.
“Your people and the environment cannot be prioritized alongside concepts like product quality and efficiency. Sacredness transcends any ranking system.”
P: “Okay. So what do you do with the sacred? How do you manage it?”
CD: “You don’t. If you do, you’ll end up producing results like yours.”
P (growing frustrated): “What do you mean by that?”
CD: “Everyone knows BP’s history. Over the last half-century, you’ve produced some of history’s most catastrophic industrial events. The human, environmental, and economic consequences of those events remains incalculable. After each of them, your leaders have stood up and uttered meaningless proclamations like, ‘Safety is a top priority!’ and ‘We need to change our culture.’ But right now, at this very moment, you are on the same path, headed to BP’s next catastrophe, and if the experts are correct, BP won’t survive it.”
P: “I’m well aware of our history. I’m doing my best to take us in another direction. What do you mean by you don’t ‘manage’ something that’s sacred? Are you saying we should stop trying to manage safety?”
CD: “Exactly. Stop trying to manage safety like all of your other business priorities. Let’s try an experiment.”
P: “Alright––but I don’t have all day.”
CD: “I know. Those priorities are calling you. But once you understand what I’m really saying, you’ll realize there is no conversation or task more important for you as a leader and BP as a company than the one we’re having right now.”
P: “Go on.”
CD: “Do you have any children? If not, is there someone in your life that is very special to you?”
P: “I have two boys, Jake and Max.”
CD: “Tell me about them. How old are they?”
P: “Jake is the oldest. He’s 11. He is Mom’s special little guy, always at my side and very protective of me.”
CD: “And Max?”
P: “Max is seven. He’s the clown, always being silly. He looks up to his big brother and wants to do everything Jake does.”
CD: “They sound like wonderful boys. Let me ask you this: Would you say the health and happiness of your two boys are top priorities for you?”
CD: “Let’s test that. Stretch both of your arms straight out in front of you and close both hands tightly, as if you were grasping something you do not want to let go. Now, in your left hand you hold the health of your two boys, Jake and Max. And in your right hand, you hold their happiness. Your boys will be happy and healthy as long as you keep your hands closed. Are you with me so far?”
CD: “Here’s the kicker: You can’t have both. In this experiment, your boys can’t be happy and healthy. You have to choose one. The decision is entirely up to you: Will Jake and Max be healthy or happy? If you open your right hand and choose health, your boys will be healthy, but without happiness. If you open your left hand and choose happiness, they’ll have it in spades but never be healthy. So choose. Open one of your hands.”
P: (Silently looks at her hands, she struggles to make a choice.) “I can’t choose.”
CD: “Of course you can. Prioritize. Just open one of your hands.”
P: “No, I can’t. I don’t want to do this. It makes me too uncomfortable––it’s unreasonable.”
CD: “Why can’t you choose?”
P: “They’re my babies. I could never choose between their health and happiness. That’s not a choice any parent could make.”
CD: “Why not?”
P: “Because my children’s health and happiness are nonnegotiable with me. I love my boys too much to choose. They’re too special to me. Too…”
P: “Yes. Sacred.”
I wish every president understood that the health, safety, and well-being of their people and our environment are sacred. They’re not business priorities and cannot be managed the way those goals are. They must be lead, ideally by someone who sees them as sacred.
That is the change BP needs to make––not in its culture, but in its leaders. Do the people who work for BP believe their leaders hold them as sacred? Are they lead and treated in a way that makes that understanding unmistakably clear? Are they referred to as “our people” and by their names? Or are they called “workers” and “colleagues”?
I once coached a major capital project in Saudi Arabia. Men worked for more than eight million hours to complete that job, which wrapped up without a single person needing to leave for medical treatment. We accomplished those jaw-dropping results without a single attempt to “reset the culture.” There were no “safety timeouts” or “training to promote personal and process safety”––no “reinforcement of procedures” or any of the other corrective actions BP officials point to in the article.
Here’s what we did: We did everything we could do to let the people on that project know that we cared about them, and that their welfare was sacred to us. They knew we loved them like we would love our own children. Furthermore, we gave them opportunities to become close with each other, so they cared for each other and took care of each other—like brothers, like family.
Near the end of the project, when asked by a safety audit team leader how they were pulling off such a miracle, one of the supervisors stood in front of his peers and declared, “We did this because we chose to change.” The auditor asked him how he’d changed. “I have been a constructor for 40 years. I can build anything. And I have been a supervisor for more than 30 years. I consider myself a great supervisor. But, on this project, I am much more than a constructor, much more than a supervisor. On this project, I am a father.” *
One last thing: the nickname the “workers” had for their leader and project manager? Beloved Father.
* Dial, Cort. Heretics to Heroes: A Memoir on Modern Leadership (Kindle Locations 2822-2824). Bee Cave Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Wonderful issue, Cort.
Thanks for reading, Ken. Love hearing from people when a message really lands.
I have been working with a group of medical professionals in order to recover how to give their services with humanization and not only as part of scientific practice, so this article helps to focus my activities with them.
Happy to hear that, Samuel. Please keep me posted on your progress.
Excellent reminder! I run a 600 person project solutions firm and our people are tested daily with their daily exposure to process and industrial environments. EHS is cultural at our firm, I witness periodically the care shared between our people, and we have a very active leading indicator driven program titled “Safe By Choice”. I do not however see all the people in our company demonstrating the “sacred” care for each other like you shared about the Saudi project. Your message will be shared with my leadership team.
Carl, thank you so much for sharing. Please keep me posted.