Safety in the Emerging Leadership Paradigm

June 1, 2000
A new model for managing organizations promises to greatly impact how functions such as safety are perceived and performed. Are you ready for the change?

Finally, we are moving away from "buzz word management," that brand of management where we verbally climb on the newest management fad, learn to speak the particular jargon and profess "me too"! Others have referred to this phenomenon as "illusion management" or "placebo management."

Good concepts such as total quality management, coaching, teaming, empowerment and re-engineering immediately come to mind when we talk about management fads. The problem is that none of these management fads were ever really taken seriously. The lambskin was merely laid over the existing and trusted wolf. The reason for that, we are told, is that these concepts came from outside our culture and, because of our "made in America" bias, were not trusted in the first place.

But a new paradigm is emerging from within our most hallowed management circles. A unique American blend of recent management concepts is beginning to take root in leading organizations. This emerging leadership paradigm will greatly impact how functions such as safety are perceived and performed, how we relate to and service our organizations, and, ultimately, what our profession will look like in the future.

The Traditional Paradigm

Our traditional management paradigm is outdated. It divides rather than brings together. It pockets power rather than disperses it into organizational energy. It disempowers rather than forming a highly motivated work force. It slows progress rather than causing surging and continual advancement.

This management paradigm came together in the mid-1800s and was patterned after the very successful Prussian army. In this movement, the concept of managers was invented. The pyramidal organizational structure was conceived in American business, and the "chain of command" was instituted with clear lines of authority. Distinct functional divisions evolved. Communication and reporting lines were set in cement. Descriptions of responsibilities became boilerplate.

Competencies or skills that managers needed, and were expected to have, also became established. Competencies such as decisiveness, results-orientation, chain of command dependence, forcefulness, action- or task-oriented, assertiveness, bottom-line focused and caste system-oriented have long been rewarded in American management. Look at the personality types and management philosophies of the vast majority of American CEOs as confirmation of this force.

These competencies were summarized in the early 1890s by Daniel McCallum, president of Erie Railroad, in his Six Principles of Administration abbreviated here:

1. Proper division of responsibilities.

2. Power that is aligned with authority, which is commensurate with responsibility.

3. The means of knowing whether such responsibilities are faithfully executed.

4. Great promptness in the reporting of all derelictions of duty.

5. Information gathering through a system of daily reports and checks.

6. Adoption of a system, as a whole, that will detect errors immediately and point out the delinquent.

This traditional management paradigm is still practiced and still struggles, primarily because it fails to appreciate systems. The importance of "managing" systems is critical to getting important work done and to improving the work so that the organization can compete better in the expanding global economy. As Peter Scholtes puts it:

"All the empowered, motivated, teamed-up, self-directed, incentivized, accountable, re-engineered and reinvented people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system. When the system is not functioning well, these things are still only empty, meaningless twaddle."

The Emerging Paradigm

The emerging paradigm is "system thinking." For American management, it represents a significant paradigm shift. Briefly, a system is a whole that is comprised of many parts. It has a definable purpose. Each part contributes to the purpose and has its own purpose. To understand the whole, we must first understand the parts, their interaction and interdependence. A system is always made up of technical and social aspects and is 180 degrees different from our traditional results orientation.

Safety people should be cautioned not to jump on the word "system." There is wisdom in patience and full understanding. This change to "system-thinking" is not to be confused with "system safety." In fact, they have few, if any, similarities.

Regardless of where we are in our organizations, this new paradigm is an important thing for us to understand. Perhaps the easiest path to understanding is to explore associated management competencies or skills that complement this system-thinking paradigm. After all, these are the skills that managers -- and we, as contributing members of the management team -- will need to be successful within this emerging leadership paradigm. There appear to be six competencies that are forming.

Competency 1: The ability to think in terms of systems and knowing how to lead systems. Dr. Edward Deming taught us to see "systems" in his System of Profound Knowledge. But it didn't start there. It can be found in Cherokee wisdom as a formula for success -- clear intention (purpose and pursuit), skillful means (methods and use) and affirmation (integrity, values and support from the heart). The Cherokee were system thinkers.

To illustrate the difference between traditional and system thinking, let's consider an example. Traditional thinkers would say: "Costs are out of control. Stop spending or buy cheaper parts." System thinkers would say: "Costs are different. Are they out of control? How do we know? If so, is this important or urgent? How do costs impact other parts of the system?" Traditional thinkers only see costs as a takeaway to the desired result -- profits or budgets. Systems thinker see costs as an interrelated part of the system.

Likewise, traditional thinkers would say: "Injuries are out of control. You, safety manager, do something now to get them under control!" Systems thinkers would say: "We seem to be having more injuries. Are they out of control? How can we determine if they are? If they are, what can we change in the system to reduce their occurrence and then reduce the associated disruption, costs and interrelated events?"

Competency 2: The ability to understand the variability of work in planning and problem-solving. Variation can be thought of in statistical terms as the "normal" range of data. Whether we measure results, what we think is performance, or do not measure at all, traditionally we do not understand variation.

Deming broke variation into two categories. Common-cause variation occurs due to causes within the system. This would include most problems we encounter, including things like defects, errors, accidents, mistakes, waste, scrap and rework. Most times, because of our lack of system thinking, we don't understand the concept of variation, so our efforts focus on identifying the causes of these unknown problems. Consequently, our efforts produce quick and easy solutions, but the problem never really goes away. System thinking realizes that these "problems" are direct results of ineffective or inefficient parts of the system.

Special-cause variation, according to Deming, occurs from a known cause that lies outside the system. These variations are easier to identify because they are external and because we more clearly understand them and their impact. Traditional management can usually see and "manage" special-cause variation very well. It simply excludes outside contact in that area. Solving common-cause variation, however, is much more difficult. It really takes system thinking to understand and minimize this type of variation.

Safety is an excellent example of common-cause variation. An injury rate that doubles or is cut in half is merely a function of variability. Understanding what causes the variability within the system helps us proactively reduce the range and minimize injury occurrence. This takes system thinking.

Competency 3: Understanding how we learn, develop and improve, leading to true learning and improvement. System thinkers realize that lifelong learning, for everyone and for our organizations, is no longer optional. Basic education is, of course, the general responsibility of our schools, but this only builds basic knowledge and skills.

In this emerging paradigm, our public education programs will also need to lead students into learning how to learn as a lifetime target. System-thinking managers realize that successful organizations must continually invest in the "development of their human resource" through continuous learning and implementing systems that force learning, such as Shewhart's (as refined by Deming) Plan, Do, Study and Act cycle of never-ending learning.

Further, system thinking recognizes that not all learners learn alike. Generally, people learn best using visual, auditory or kinesthetic learning methods, or a hybrid mix of them. Understanding how we learn dovetails with what we learn in application. It distinguishes traditional training from learning. Training is an activity. Learning is an individual and organizational accomplishment.

Is safety a part of this learning competency? From a systems perspective, of course it is. Learning is not just focused on the newest technology or management concept. Learning is focused on all critical parts of the system, including safety. This safety learning dovetails to behavior throughout the organization -- by management, workers and the support aspects or parts of the system.

Competency 4: Understanding people and why they behave as they do. Behavior-based safety people will certainly look at this and say, "Ah hah!" But this is only one piece of the emerging equation, which requires understanding of the whole system, not just observation and measurement of the safety component. The former is system thinking. The latter is reductionist thinking and complements our traditional management paradigm.

This emerging competency speaks about management having the knowledge and ability to effectively create and maintain a work environment where everyone is motivated to behave positively. Whether this behavior is focused at building positive work relationships, getting to work on time, behaving responsibly, building quality products or providing quality services, or performing in a safe manner, system thinking focuses on people as an integral part of the system.

Many feel that the key component of this new competency is the ability to build and maintain trust throughout the entire organization based on positive, contributing work relationships and communication. This is a critically important quality of any successful organization, especially those that undergo rapid or constant change. In today's business world, any organization aspiring to success in the future must embrace change as the normal climate, not the abnormal.

Trust is often confused with respect. They are not the same. Unfortunately, our traditional organizations are racked with distrust. Although our management paradigms are built on respect for management, total respect for management can never really be achieved due to caste-system thinking. Toward this quasi-end, companies throw in traditional activities such as coaching, modeling, walking the talk and 360-degree performance appraisals. This approach hasn't worked.

System thinkers, on the other hand, know that there is a critical relationship that must be built between management and the rest of the organization that tears down traditional boundaries. This addition, focused at the people part of the system, allows achievement of a level beyond respect -- trust.

Competency 5: Understanding the interaction and interdependence between systems, variability, learning and human behavior; knowing how each affects each other. One cannot truly understand any one competency (systems, variability, learning or behavior) without understanding the other three. The world in which we live and work is complex, and that complexity is increasing exponentially. Consequently, the problems we face and the needs we must address in any competency area are also complex.

System thinkers realize that progress cannot be made by applying simplistic solutions to complex problems. Nor can progress be made by solving problems simply within one competency area without appreciating and attending to the others. In other words, it is no solution to pour resources at learning while ignoring how human behavior will be impacted or how the new behavior will be accomplished.

Focusing only on human behavior will also fail if a company refuses to solve associated issues in the other parts of the system and, thus, minimize variability. Likewise, focusing on system timeframes in disregard of others, such as sacrificing future plans solely to improve the quarterly economics, will also lead to destruction. After all, there is a current and a future timeframe within every system. Both must receive attention as interdependent and interrelated aspects of successful system leadership.

If we are to be successful within this new paradigm, we must stop thinking of safety as a function in itself. Instead, we must begin to see safety as an interacting and interrelated part of the whole system. It isn't our job or function. It is a part of everyone's job and function within the organization. At the same time, safety is only a part of our job. Like everyone else, we are charged with being competent in all parts of our organizational responsibility and viewing what we contribute as part of the system. Disturbingly, this line of thought naturally asks: "Why do we need a specialized safety person if safety is a part of everyone's job? Isn't this safety part merely a function of organization-wide learning?"

Competency 6: Giving vision, meaning, direction and focus to the organization. The concept of vision tends to be misunderstood by traditional thinkers. Vision tends to be placed in the "mountain top" region where "visionaries" foretell what is to be long into the future. Not so! In actuality, vision is really only a "treetop" concept.

Vision is also a direction, not a destination. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples that show the interrelated nature of being successful and knowing the direction you want to go to become successful. Do you really think Bill Gates would have ever become a target of the Department of Justice if he hadn't had a vision that pointed toward the future when he was building computers in his garage?

Providing vision is the function of management. Traditional management looks at vision as "nice if you have it." System thinkers consider it the "Holy Grail." But vision doesn't just address markets, profit or image issues. Vision describes the system aspects of the organization that allow them to focus their entire energy toward accomplishment. Vision focuses on many parts of the organization, including safety, environmental and quality excellence.

Dr. Noriaki Kano, a professor of management science at Tokyo Science University, once said: "Americans tend to go an inch deep and a mile wide." What he identified was our traditional approach to name too many things to do in our planning, each of which only scratches the surface of where we need to go. Then, because we have too many targets, we get nothing accomplished. System thinking says that we must "go a mile deep and an inch wide." System thinkers realize the importance of doing fewer things but doing them thoroughly. This, of course, can only be an identifiable result of having and pursuing a vision.

Safety in the Emerging Paradigm

Each of us, and our profession collectively, has a lot invested in the traditional approach. How will safety be impacted by this emerging leadership paradigm? As with anything new and emerging, there is a lot we do not know at this point. But there are many things that, just by the way the new order thinks, can be stated with great assuredness.

In the new paradigm, safety is a part of the system. Speaking in system-thinking terms, the purpose of safety -- to reduce accidents and illnesses -- contributes to the purpose of the system. Safety is a part of new competencies such as understanding and managing variation, learning and behavior. Safety, good or bad, interacts with every other part of the system and contributes to the successful accomplishment of each part. Safety, therefore, is an integral part of the system, woven into each management competency and a part of everyone's day-to-day responsibilities.

Thinking about safety in system terms causes a predictable line of questions to be asked ... and answered. The questions are disturbing enough, but the answers will define our roles in the emerging organizations.

1. How does management assess safety?

2. Do we trust the traditional reactive indicators such as injury rate and severity indexes, or do we look at the measures of associated, causal or correlative proactive system elements?

3. What measure can we use that is associated, causal or correlative with safety performance?

4. If having no accidents is good, how do we measure what does not occur?

5. Is safety really what OSHA defines it to be -- guarded equipment, MSDS sheets, handrail heights, etc?

6. If a certain amount of quality defects is acceptable in a continuous improvement initiative, is a certain number of injuries also acceptable?

7. Is safety merely an extension of behavior, or is it truly a component of each competency?

8. If safety is only a part of the system, shouldn't the time and resources allocated to it also be in relation to its size?

9. Can safety's relationship to the whole system be quantified?

10. If safety is a part of the system, not a function that services the system, and safety is a part of everyone's responsibility, do we really need a safety specialist?

These are not comfortable questions. The answers may be extremely painful, especially to those who are deeply invested in the old management paradigm. This new way of thinking, however, is not negative to safety. Thinking in system terms can only improve the safety and health of our workers.

System thinking allows us to impact the common-cause variation that causes injuries and illnesses within the system. System thinking allows us to value safety as an integral and critical part of the system, not to devalue it as traditionally happens at "crunch time" or when budgets get tight. System thinking will move our altruistic mission for worker safety and health into everyone's job and function in the organization and place them in concrete terms. With everyone participating, safety can only improve.

System thinking can provide an advantage or a disadvantage for us in this profession. It will be an advantage to those who accept changes in their roles and take leadership positions in its birth in our organizations. Unfortunately, it will be a serious disadvantage, even fatal, to those who cannot let go of the traditional ways of thinking and find opportunity in this emerging paradigm.

Contributing Editor F. David Pierce is vice president of Leadership Solution Consultants Inc., a Salt Lake City-based management and change navigation firm. He is the author of four books on safety systems and management, and many management and safety articles. He regularly lectures on safety and management issues. He may be contacted by phone at (801) 523-0986, by fax at (801) 576-0361 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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