Willa Rhodes answered the phone—it was the call that everyone dreads. A long wharf superintendent told her that one of Willa’s protégés, 32-year-old Sandy Redstone, was dead. Sandy had fallen to her death while inspecting a terminal bridge construction project. 
Willa is the CEO of GTS, a family business with a 70-year history of building port and terminal facilities all over North and South America. Along with its reputation for excellent work, GTS has long been known and often awarded for its safety program. Its safety standards were considered to be gold standards.
Maintaining the GTS safety record was more difficult than it appeared. Despite the awards and millions of dollars spent in training and software, GTS was troubled by a slow upward trend of incidents over the previous two years. GTS numbers were still excellent, but safety and project directors had few answers for Willa’s inquiries about recent events.
Early investigations into Sandy’s death were inconclusive. Conditions were dry, winds were calm, no machines were operating in her vicinity. Eventually, inspectors found that a fall protection barrier had been removed by a crew member just before Sandy arrived. She had walked right past where the barrier should have been and fell through a hole in the roadway to her death.
Sandy was a respected superintendent. She was a smart, careful manager, well-liked by crews and colleagues. Sandy was also a single mother of three children. Willa was heartbroken when she attended the funeral. As she looked around, she could tell that Sandy had been deeply loved by her friends and community.
For Willa, this was a personal tragedy. She had mentored Sandy since hiring her out of a community college program 12 years before.
Willa came home from Sandy’s funeral a changed person. At the Monday senior management team meeting, she started by publicly declaring, “We killed her! We left three young children without a mother. Ultimately, the responsibility for Sandy’s death lies with me, but we killed her, and we need to know how this happened.”
Who is Accountable for What?
Willa asked for an investigation into the incident and GTS conditions in general. She told her team to assume nothing and to look at the GTS culture specifically.
But who is accountable in this situation, and what are they accountable for? We all have different opinions – we can blame Willa because she’s the CEO, or point fingers at the onsite superintendent, GTS safety policies, the worker who removed the barrier, or even Sandy herself, who neglected to watch where she was going. While we search for whom to blame, we must ask ourselves why are we searching for anyone to blame? Certainly, lost lives, lost jobs, fines, lawsuits, and PTSD are severe enough consequences of this tragic accident. But, do consequences change anything? Are we only accountable for rewards and punishments? Or does accountability belong elsewhere?
Damning though they were, the results of the GTS investigation were not a huge surprise to Willa. GTS is a large enterprise. While everyone is well aware of the “safety rules,” no one is held accountable to them. At the time of the accident, there were clear communication problems and frequent misunderstandings of priorities. These happened at all levels, including between corporate offices and the field, between senior managers and project managers, and between superintendents, foremen, and crew.
Accountability Happens When?
When considering accountability, a good place to start is with Merriam Webster's definition: “An obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one's actions.”
Problems happen when we see accountability as something we can demand or make happen: I tell you what to do, then tell you the consequences for not doing it; and, if it’s your lucky day and you get done early, you might get a little reward. This isn’t accountability, it’s pure behavioral conditioning. Great for mice or dogs, not much good for adult humans.
When people don't meet their obligations, we feel that they have violated our expectations. We begin to tell ourselves stories about what mean, uncaring, indifferent people they are. We treat them like criminals and want to punish them as such. A good leader knows to stop, challenge the assumptions, and focus on the problem.
Interestingly, determining whether someone can be held accountable in a safety incident mirrors the process of finding the right suspect in a murder mystery. Who has the means, motive, and opportunity? Real accountability can only happen when the person meets these conditions:
- Means is the ability that comes from the required knowledge, skills, and tools.
- Motive is an internal, personal reason to act. The person must truly care about the job they are doing, due to pride, morals, ethics, self-interest, or other personal reasons. Unless a person believes in what they’re doing, they will not commit to it. Fear of fines and firings are external motivations and are never effective for any great length of time.
- Opportunity is just that – they have the time and place to do the work.
Setting the atmosphere for these conditions to happen is the project leader’s job. They do this by having conversations, making decisions, and documenting the input and decisions into a plan.
Successful leaders rely on five questions to govern this process:
1. What are the interests of each person or group involved?
2. Where do each of their interests connect and how can we strengthen those connections?
3. Where do each of their interests differ, and how can we bridge the gaps?
4. Meeting standards, whether government regulations or company policy, is always a requirement. What are the options and how do we come to an agreement and move forward?
5. If we can't come to an agreement, what are the alternatives that meet the standards, and can we agree upon them? Or, does the problem need a re-think - which may include redefining the problem itself?
The answers to these questions energize the decision-making and planning process. This, in turn, sets the right conditions for commitment, engagement, and accountability to happen.
When Willa received the results of the GTS investigation, she clearly understood that safety was about far more than training and compliance. She and each manager at every level hold the primary responsibility to lead the organization to safety. Despite the awards, it was not safe. Willa decided that the only acceptable injury rate at GTS was zero. To her, the awards GTS had gained over the years were recognition for being nothing but better than average. A woman had died and left three children without parents. Better than average was not good enough.
In the five years since Sandy’s funeral, GTS has changed. Everyone at every level is engaged and accountable to a relentless pursuit of zero incidents. Safety is the first leadership, management, and personal priority. “How do we complete this task without incident?” is the first and last question asked at every meeting – in the office, on the job, in the pickup truck, and in the crane.
At the time that the Sandy Redstone tragedy occurred, GTS had better compliance metrics than most companies. Since starting the drive to zero, GTS has lowered their incident rates 95% – twice. And, during the past five years, its workforce has increased by 35%. Willa and all of her teams understand that the key to zero incidents is everyone being engaged with and accountable to each other – from the head office to the field office, from core leaders to crew members.
The key to GTS’ success in changing its safety culture was taking a scrupulous approach to decision-making, safety planning, and accountability to what really counted – bringing everyone home safely at the end of every day.
 This is based on a true story. Names and other data have been changed.