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  • Mike Donoghue

Accountability: It Isn't Such a Bad Word

I have been very fortunate to spend the last two weeks working at one of our client sites in Ontario. The first week was spent helping their Maintenance Turnaround team finalize preparations around risk management, and the second week was spent working with leadership to enhance the safety culture during the upcoming Turnaround. I have to say, I'm humbled for my business partners and I to be trusted by our client with such critical tasks.

Two years ago, we were asked by our client to help them shift the culture at their facilities after an incident; we worked with the Vice President of Operations as well as the site leadership to develop what we now call Visible Safety Leadership. As we claim, we do not have a one size fits all approach to anything we do, and as such we prefer to work with our clients and develop solutions that fit their individual needs. Within this process, we look to embed a humanistic ethos at the centre of everything we do. It's quite a simple concept yet so many times we see that companies treat people with little respect or consideration, yet they expect those same people to give valuable time and effort without complaint or objection, even though they are feeling frustrated, stressed and are carrying the many other issues which all of us are experiencing as of late.

The key message of the Visible Safety Leadership program is that culture is the driving force to deliver production operations, project mandates and ultimately a profitable company, all without hurting people both physically and mentally. We have a section within the two-day program, that lays out the case for change and why culture is the foundation of sustainable safety in any company. Throughout the workshop, we actively encourage participation from the attendees and challenge them to think differently than they have previously. We also share experiences and stories from our own journey as we believe that to change the culture you have to bring hearts and minds along the journey too and this is best done with a tale that people can relate to.

Within the culture module, we discuss the journey that safety initiatives have taken and one such point on the journey being that of the "Just Culture Model" which was an attempt by many companies to move away from the "blame culture" around incidents. For anyone who hasn't seen, heard or experienced this model it is a series of questions that a leader or investigator would ask, the first being "Were the employees' actions or behaviour as intended?", followed by, "Is there a history of work performance problems?" The third question being, "Would you or a qualified person have acted or behaved in a similar way?"

Only after exhausting these questions would the Investigator consider that there might be an issue with the policy, procedure, standard or rule, and whether it was clear, available, workable and understood.

To me, this didn't sound a lot different from the "blame culture" and it certainly didn't improve on near miss and incident reporting, in effect, it drove safety issues underground. After some research, I came to realize that the intent of Professor James Reason's work had been misinterpreted and that continuing down that line of reasoning was not going to achieve the objective of a zero-incident workplace, where everyone gets to go home safe both physically and mentally. An alternative version of the "Just Culture Model" that we've developed is captured below, it's something we call, the "Accountability Model". It's a simple concept and only requires that you view the incident from a perspective of 180 degrees.

Your first question becomes. "Is there an issue with the policy, procedure, standard or rule, and whether it was clear, available, workable and understood?" the second question being, "Would you or a qualified person have acted or behaved in a similar way?"

It's a simple idea, and one that sets the employee up for success and completely removes the naming and shaming version of the "blame culture".

That's not to say that there are times when questions three and four need to be considered; however, in my experience perceived "problem employees" are just that perceived. It is rare that a new employee comes to work with the intent to do harm or cause problems and that the problem employee develops from a sense of injustice (perhaps if you have the time you might like to read my blog on The Golden Rules of Leadership - Shifting Culture.) When you consider the cost of training a new employee is in the region of $60,000 before they become effective, getting rid of an employee because you consider it easier to blame them and move them on rather than fix faulty systems and processes, might not be the most cost-effective approach to developing a safety culture. How many employees have to be disciplined before you ask the right questions? The ones that actually point to the deficiencies within the organization or processes/policies in which you rely on? Or when was the last time you looked inward at your leadership style to see how effective of a leader or communicator you are? Or .. what about your Continuous Improvement approach?

Accountability in Action

One day there was a work order issued to service a compressor at the bottom of a field, The field was owned by a local farmer and on this particular day, there had been a heavy snowfall. The track to the compressor station had not been plowed and the first to arrive at the gate to the field was the Mechanic. Being pressed for time and needing to get on with the work he decided his 3500 truck would be able to traverse the field and there would be no problem as he has done this before. After driving 100 yards into the field the Mechanic became stuck. Shortly after this, an Instrument Technician arrived to also perform work; he followed the mechanic into the field, only to find that his 1500 truck became stuck around 50 yards along the same track. Finally, the Operator arrived to isolate the compressor and issue the permits, only to find these two other guys stuck in the track.

After some discussion between the three of them, they decided they would attempt to tow the instrument truck out of the field back to the gate. The Operator had a tow rope and made he decision to connect the tow rope to the front of his truck; at this point it was discovered that there was no clevis to fit into the hitch receiver and after discussion, the decision was made to hook the tow rope onto the safety chain lug.

The Operator commenced towing the instrument truck out of the field and took up the tension in the tow rope. Unfortunately, as the tension increased the safety chain lug sheared and the hook smashed into the operator's radiator grill. At this point, they realized that they had an incident and called their Supervisors. An incident investigation was conducted and instead of conducting the investigation using the "Just Culture Model" the alternative "Accountability Model" was used and the findings indicated that the Towing Policy was unclear and unworkable and had another team been in the same position they would have attempted the same approach. Therefore the policy had not been communicated and there was nothing more than unwritten knowledge with regards to what the Towing Policy was. The policy was corrected and communicated to indicate that towing in future was to be done by experienced tow truck operators and tow ropes were removed from operator and tradespeople trucks.

As a consequence of this, and a few other instances where the "Accountability Model" was applied after incidents, the culture of the operation started to shift and there were more near-miss reports submitted, more learning offered and ultimately the safety performance of the operation improved over time.

This event is an example that takes place in every organization and by leadership looking to answer the question, "Have we set the team and individual up for success by ensuring all policies procedure standards and rules are available, clear and workable?" The culture can shift to one where zero incidents aren't only an aspiration but a reality, we just have to be willing to ask the right questions.

Want to learn more about the Accountability Model or how we can help your organization shift your safety culture? Reach out, a call doesn't cost a thing.

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