Years ago, I began coaching Bob, the operations director in a large chemical corporation where we both worked. Bob was about 15 years older than I was and well respected. Sitting together on an early morning flight to one of our manufacturing facilities in Augusta, Georgia, I jumped into a dicey conversation.
“We are aware of only about 10% of our injuries and incidents,” I told him.
“No way!” Bob rebutted. “With all the emphasis we put on injury reporting, I’m sure we know about almost all of them.”
I decided I didn’t want to spend the entire flight arguing. “Maybe when we tour the plant this afternoon we’ll have an opportunity to find out.”
Clearly frustrated but fine with moving on to easier topics, Bob agreed.
The plant visit went well, and late in our tour, the chance I’d been hoping for popped up in the maintenance shop. Bob had served as the plant manager years ago, and as we approached a group of five mechanics, it was obvious they were happy to see him again.
After the old friends had a chance to catch up, Bob eyed me as he said to the mechanics, “I’ve brought Cort on this tour in the hope he might learn something about the real world. He has a lot of crazy ideas, and I think visits like these can show him what it’s really like to work in a plant.”
I smiled and kept my mouth closed, resisting the temptation to tell Bob that I’d actually worked in several more plants than he had.
A handsome senior mechanic named Deacon with grey hair and tanned, leathery skin turned to me and said in a distinct Southern drawl, “Cort, what’s one of your wild ideas that’s got Bob’s gut in a knot?”
Before I could answer, Bob said, “He told me that we––us in management––are aware of about 10% of the incidents and injuries that go on in our plants. I told him he’s nuts.”
“Did he, now?” Deacon said with a grin, turning to spit his tobacco in a nearby trashcan. I knew Deacon was about to help me help Bob see what he’d been missing or blow any chance I had to convince Bob he was wrong.
“Mr. Cort, I don’t wish to offend you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Deacon said. I glanced at Bob, who was wearing a Cheshire Cat smile, and thought to myself, This is going well.
“No, friend, you are way off. It’s no where near 10%.” Deacon grinned. Bob’s smile collapsed as his jaw dropped. The other mechanics saw Bob’s response burst out laughing.
I tried to restrain my joy, and before I could say anything, Bob fired back, “Deacon, you’re crazy. There is no way on earth that 90% of the injuries we have go unreported. I just can’t buy that. It certainly wasn’t that way when I led this plant.”
“No, it wasn’t, Bob,” Deacon said. “And we’ve all wondered what made you change.”
“Change?” Bob asked, exasperated. “What do you mean I’ve changed?”
“Well, when you were our plant manager, you made it clear to everyone that you expected us to make high-quality chemicals and do it in a safe and efficient way,” Deacon said.
“Of course I did,” Bob said, nodding. “I expect nothing different today.”
“You’d never know it, Bob,” one of the other mechanics chimed in. The rest of the group grunted in agreement.
“What do you mean by that?” Bob asked, agitated and honestly confused.
Deacon stepped up and put his hand on Bob’s shoulder. “He means this: as you say, when you were our plant manager, it was clear that you expected us to manufacture high-quality chemicals in a safe manner.” He spoke softly, removing all traces of the gentle ribbing that had punctuated the banter before. “But that’s not the message we hear from you and the others at the headquarters these days.”
“What do you hear?” Bob asked, almost whispering as if he was afraid of the answer.
Dean took his hand off Bob’s shoulder and moved back among his fellow mechanics. He stood tall and shoulder-to-shoulder with his workmates, looked at Bob, and said, “Bob, what we hear from you today is you want us to manufacture numbers that make it look like we make high-quality chemicals in a safe and efficient way.”
Bob stared at the crew. “What? What the hell does that mean?”
“Why don’t you have Cort answer that question for you, Bob?” Deacon said. “I think he understands exactly what we mean.” Then he and the other mechanics told Bob they needed to clock out and head home. They thanked him for all he’d done for them as plant manager and told him he was “welcome anytime” at the plant.
Bob didn’t say much as the mechanics said their goodbyes. When we were alone again, I didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t mention what had happened throughout the remaining legs of our trip. I figured he would approach me if and when he was ready.
Monday morning after our return home, Bob asked me to join him in his office. He closed the door behind us, sat down with me at his conference table, and let out a long sigh. “Okay, Cort. What is it you’re trying to help me see? What do you want me to do?”
I spent the next several months helping Bob realize where he’d lost his way with his safety leadership, and the unintended consequences of a misguided focus and message. It’s a true story with a happy ending: Bob regained his status as a highly regarded safety leader as he led his organization to exceptional performance.
In my next post, I’ll share what Bob learned, the changes he made in himself, and how he altered his overall approach to safety. Let’s go all-in.
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