Risk is all around us. Managers who understand this critical fact realize that they can take positive steps to avoid negative consequences. However, these steps do not come easily.
Changing an organization’s culture to balance safety with profit is hard work, according to Gordon Graham, a business consultant and former police officer who now lectures internationally on risk management.
Graham endorses Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s “Seven Rules of Success” and applies them to safety. Rickover served 64 years in the United States Navy and is known as the father of the nuclear Navy. Rickover was a safety fanatic who took a “womb-to-tomb” approach to management, saying, “I am responsible for the ship throughout its life-from the very beginning to the very end.”
If you think of yourself as the caption of your organizational ship and implement Rickover’s straightforward rules, there is no doubt that safety in your organization would improve dramatically.
1. Practice continuous improvement. Rise above the minimum standard. Measure your results, and then strive to improve them to the next best measurement, and so on. Never accept the status quo.
2. Hire smart people. People running complex systems must be highly competent. That sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? Yet how many organizations fail to fire employees during their probationary period thinking, “Oh, maybe they’ll improve”? They won’t. If they can’t do the job, and do it safely, there are others who can. In a 1973 speech, Rickover said, “Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”
3. Establish quality supervision. “Show me a tragedy and I’ll show you poor supervision,” according to Graham. “Many people who call themselves supervisors never make the transition from buddy to boss.” You cannot be both an employee’s friend and his or her supervisor, Graham believes.
4. Have a healthy respect for the dangers you face. Many people lack respect for risk or fail to understand the dangers that they face. They tend to overestimate their risks from events that pose little danger or are unlikely to occur and underestimate the risks that matter. We must educate employees about the risks they face in the workplace and work to eliminate them.
5. Every day is a training day. This fact cannot be overemphasized as our employment pool ages and our memories grow shorter. Yet why are training funds one of the first wacks under the budget ax? Go through every job description to determine the risks, and then train to those risks. Never expect an employee who performs a task infrequently to do so safely.
6. Audit, control, and inspect. Auditing is not micromanagement, Graham insists. Rules without enforcement are useless, as are safety systems without implementation. The most advanced fall protection system will not work if workers fail to wear it.
Admiral Rickover refused to delegate the audit process and, because of this and his obsession with safety, is credited with the Navy’s record of zero nuclear accidents. If in doubt, assume the worst as Rickover did if he could not verify that a submarine’s construction met with the appropriate standards and he insisted on a tear-down. While Rickover was widely disliked for his persistence and attitude, the Navy’s safety record was unblemished under his management.
7. Learn from past mistakes. “There are no new ways to get in trouble, only new ways to stay out of trouble. Most organizations keep repeating the same mistakes,” Graham says. “A basic rule is ‘there’s always a better way'” and organizations should learn from errors to avoid repeating them. “Predictable is preventable. If it’s identifiable, it is manageable,” according to Graham.
Accidents don’t just happen; they are a either a lack of a system to prevent the occurrence or a system failure. Taking Rickover’s seven steps, which with some minor modifications are still in use in today’s nuclear Navy, organizations can work toward a culture of zero accidents and injuries.