Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Who is going to fill the gap?

While completing employee interviews during a safety assessment at one of our client’s sites we noticed a common theme kept coming up – a recent change in policy has made the process of securing subject matter experts to provide necessary safety training a bureaucratic nightmare. The reason for the change is a bit unclear (we haven’t been able to talk to the people responsible for the change) but likely has to do with transparency and fairness in the procurement process (the client works for a city government), so it was made with the best of intentions.

However, the change, according to the employees we’ve talked to, has made getting employees trained appropriately extraordinarily difficult. As a result, many employees report not having all the required safety training that they need to do their jobs.

Now, the above story is not a new one. In fact, most who are reading this have either been in organizations with similar problems or know of other organizations like that. Having an organization with less than ideal circumstances should not be surprising to anyone. That’s normal.

Unfortunately though, there’s something else that’s normal about this story. The inability to get the training from outside vendors has created a gap in the organization. Employees need to do jobs that require training that they have not received. And guess who has to bridge that gap? Primarily, the employees do.

It’s so common that it’s sad – our employees are often left to bridge the gaps left in our management systems. We see the signs of this in our accident investigation reports. Think of how many investigations cite the following factors as contributing to an accident:
  • Design flaws
  • Faulty tools or equipment
  • Poorly-written procedures
  • Inadequate training
These issues are common in organizations, yet our management systems are not designed to help employees deal with these gaps. We spend very little time helping employees deal with the imperfect circumstances. But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Someone has to bridge the gap to make sure the work gets done, right? If we don’t do, or if management in the organization doesn’t do it, then the employees, in a perverse game of musical chairs, are the only ones left standing when the music stops. They have no choice to find a way to work around the imperfect circumstances to find a way to achieve success.

And you know what’s crazy? Our employees are so good at this that we don’t even realize that they are doing it. They achieve success, day-in and day-out, without much support. That is, they do until there’s an accident (and then we blame them for violating our procedures).

Now, an obvious response is to point the finger at management, as they are the ones responsible for creating an effective management system. This may be justified, but we have to admit that this will only take us so far. We can do everything we can to make our designs better, get the best equipment available, write the most concise and accurate procedures, and provide compelling and realistic training. But in a dynamic, complex world there will always be gaps because designs, equipment, procedures, and training are static. Very quickly after we implement our new, amazing policy that everyone has buy-in on, things change and gaps start to show as our system changes due to changing technology, demographics, and/or economic conditions.

So, if our response to this merely to enhance our controls and shore up our management system, this will not fix all of the problems (although it may help some).  A better response is to increase the resilience of your organization by building in the capacity to adapt to circumstances as they change. This will require a bit of a new way of thinking and acting, but it’s the only way we can help carry the burden that our employees are currently carrying on their own. Here’re some tips to help you get started:
  • Get out from behind your desk and start learning about thereality that your employees are facing. There is always a difference between how we imagine work is happening and how it’s actually happening. Talk to your employees about problems they are facing. Learning about the things that are making work difficult for them. You might not agree with their perspectives and you may not be able to solve all of the problems. But the first step in any problem solving method is to identify the problem.
  • Consider doing success investigations. It will give you a better idea of what’s actually making your organization successful than only looking at failure (accidents).
  • For rules and procedures, have a process to ensure that they are continually updated and are consistent with reality.
  • When implementing a new design, equipment, policy, procedure, or training, consider doing a micro-experiment, where you test it out on a small scale before rolling it out completely. Making small changes will be a lot easier than making large changes later.
  • For those issues that you just can’t fix in the short term (like the procurement bureaucracy discussed above) work with your employees and management to identify alternate solutions that allow workers to get the job done safely. Make sure you involve the workers in this process, otherwise it is doomed to fail.
  • Make sure your top management (and you) are doing everything you can do to share the burden with the employees. What can you do to make it easier for them, even if it makes it a bit more inconvenient for you?

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