Why Quality and Safety Suffer at the Hand of Poor Leadership

Talent is a spectrum- there is no doubt about it. Professional Sports, for example, will produce certain athletes who possess a ton of raw talent who seem to succeed with ease, while others take more time and need a lot more practice to refine their capabilities. Michael Jordan for example, was renowned for his ability to out perform his opponents, but not before he was cut from most of the teams he originally tried out for. He wasn’t even really known until late in his college career. LeBron James on the other hand, was a star before he stepped foot on a professional court (bypassing college altogether). NBA fans are constantly debating who the better player is, (personally my money’s on Jordan), but I digress.

For most professionals, sporting or otherwise, it takes consistent and patient coaching to produce the best results. Good coaching also has the capacity to bring out the talent of an entire team of people, rather than relying on just one extremely talented or knowledgeable person to be a good example to others. Safety and quality in the workplace require the same kind of patient, team focused coaching.

Some companies, however, hire a good manager or supervisors and hope that everyone else falls in line. When and if they fail to comply, it is common to hire a safety “officer” (to my point, sometimes their title actually has the word officer in it). Officers rigidly inspect people in the field and police them into doing things “the right way”. They know the rules, and rather than building a relationship with the people they work with- they lord their knowledge over their team with snide comments, snippy remarks and curt emails and embarrassing reports.

As companies grow, safety and quality become more and more difficult to manage. Imagine the individual shop owner vs. a conglomerate like Sam’s Club or Costco. Controlling inventory and how the shelves are stocked at the end each day is much easier for the person with five shelves than for a corporation with hundreds of stores stretching across the globe. Oilfield service and construction companies are no different. What works with a small crew of 2 or 3, is much different than what it takes to have crews safely and successfully working all over a basin. It can be tempting to find superstars or police to manage growth, and a few “grunts” to follow them, rather than building an entire team of stars. Companies hope that the leaders will control the lower level employees, rather than training the leaders to build up their teams.

So how do companies scale from a group of 2 or 3 while keeping the same attention to quality, safety, health and environmental (QHSE) processes? They must be dedicated to hiring professionals, both safety and otherwise, who are focused on coaching the team, rather than policing them.

Coaches are not easy to find. They value other’s growth, share knowledge freely, and are coachable themselves. They know when to ask questions as well as see other’s strengths and weaknesses. Not only do they have these qualities, but they are able to see the vision of a company and communicate to the team how to achieve the sub-goals and strategies involved, effectively. One thing that is great about safety personnel, is it’s extremely easy to see the difference between a coach and a cop. When control and policing begin, people look for ways to cheat the system and the way operate tends to go ‘underground’. They don’t trust the leadership, so they find ways to undermine it in order to get the job done.

Let’s be honest, not everyone is going to ‘like’ the safety person. That is empirical. Some see us as trying to “tell them how to do their job” - and candidly, a lot of safety people do just that. This type of leadership is a major contributor to failures in quality and safety. If people are coached to know how to enhance their knowledge in order to do things safely, ensuring to clearly the explain “why” as well, teams are far more likely to follow a given set of standards and policies than if it becomes just a rote script they robotically recite for the safety team. Always remember to look to build a team, rather than just fill positions.

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