“That’s not my problem,” Sgt. Green shrugged. “I didn’t lose it. I’m going inside and watching SpongeBob. Screw you guys!”
Those of you who served in the military probably won’t be surprised, but Sgt. Green had a funny way of saying ‘screw you’ that sounded remarkably like ‘F-you.’ As soon as he’d said it, he walked inside and left us to sort out our conundrum.
This is one of those Korea Leadership lessons that has stuck with me over the years. I figured it would be a good change of pace just in case anyone’s gotten the idea that I’m only interested in bashing the poor examples of Safety Professionals out there. As I get farther into this thing, you’ll see quite a few posts about leadership. Because without it, there’s no point in even trying to get better at safety.
We’ve pulled safety so far apart from everything else in our businesses, that it’s tempting to believe you can be a great leader and have someone else handle safety for you. That’s just not true. A good leader might have someone write his speeches for him, but he (or she) damn well better execute flawlessly. That means living safety just as much as one lives profit, production, quality, etc. Most of this blog is aimed at helping the safety professional write better speeches (so to speak), but the leadership of any given organization is the critical piece to making those speeches resonate. You get my drift.
In any case, Sgt. Green had a right to be mad that night. We had committed a CARDINAL (someone remind me to post about that word one day) sin. In the Air Force, one of the highest priorities is protecting assets, both human and machine. Obviously, the machine assets come with some hefty price tags, so you can imagine how much emphasis might be put on, say… not having a wrench sucked into the engine of an F-16. Every tool that could possibly come into contact with the flightline had to be tagged, tracked, and accounted for every day, every shift. We had some pretty simple tricks and even more robust systems for accomplishing that task, but the long and short of it was that no one ever went home until every tool had been accounted for.
That night, our swing-shift crew had killed it and inspected over 150 missiles. That number might not impress you, and in all honesty, the inspection part of the task was a quick thing. What wasn’t quick was pulling all of the missiles out of storage, putting them on a trailer, tying said trailer down (per regulation tie-down configuration), driving them to our shop, taking them off the trailer, and then painstakingly opening the containers. That was the hardest part. The containers were made of fiberglass and rusted metal that had sat in storage since (in some cases) the 1960s. Nothing lined up and two or more guys had to pry the bolts loose to open the box, then muscle them back into place once the inspection was done. All of this being done while praying some idiot didn’t do something stupid like shatter one of the protective covers on the front of the unit.
Like I said, we had killed it! I was driving the forklift that night and remember driving into the bay to scoop up the last missile and seeing a look of panic on the face of the Airman who was doing tool inventory. I parked the lift and went over to help, but my heart sunk as soon as I walked up to him.
“We’re missing a crescent wrench,” he said softly. I looked at my watch and noted that we were already 45 minutes past the end of our shift. From that point the rest of the crew went into panic mode and tried to find the missing tool. Until Sgt. Green walked back in.
“What’s taking you guys so long? Let’s go home.” He knew there was an issue, but I’m sure he wanted to rub it in a bit before someone delivered the news. He had been in the next bay handling some smaller jobs in order for the rest of us keep focused and get our work done. Everyone went silent and waited for someone else to speak up. Finally, the same Airman I had spoken to broke it to him. That’s the point at which he decided to go watch SpongeBob.
We spent the next three hours re-opening and re-inspecting EVERY SINGLE UNIT in the exact reverse order we had begun earlier that night. Sgt. Green watched AFN (Armed Forces Network) the entire time. He came out once to check and gave us some more funky sounding ‘screw yous,’ but for the most part, we toiled alone. And we found nothing…
It was nearly four in the morning when I pulled the last load of two missiles (stacked on top of each other like Legos) into the bay. I backed the lift up and raised my mast, then forward again to lift the top missile off. As I tilted my forks back a loud, resounding metal CLANK echoed through the bay. The wrench had been sitting on the lip of that last missile. Sequentially, that meant that those two missiles were the first two we had inspected. So yes, we had lost the wrench at the very start.
You’re probably reading this thinking that I’m going to give you some predictable line about how Sgt. Green wasn’t a good leader because he didn’t have his troops’ backs. That he wasn’t willing to get down and dirty and do the hard work. That’s certainly what we all felt that night (and said in our own funky version of screw you, repeatedly).
But the real leadership lesson is actually quite the opposite. Sgt. Green happened to be one of the best examples of a leader I’ve ever worked for. I’m not even sure he was aware of how good he was. The real lesson is accountability. He had given us a job to do, and expectations regarding the quality of work required of us. The simplest of our tasks that night was to maintain accountability of our tools, and we had not done that. Sgt. Green made us own it. Most leaders don’t have the fortitude to do something like that because it means drawing a line in the sand and backing up your words when shit hits the fan. All while suffering through the hate and discontent your people sling at you from the other side of the line.
If nothing else came of that night, that crew never lost another tool. The amazing thing is, though, that we actually became a team that night. A team that never questioned who their leader was.
What unexpected lessons have you learned from the great leaders in your career?
Might as well just dive off the deep end, rip off the band-aid and say it. Doc Brown was better at safety than most people who call themselves safety professionals… for one specific reason: He didn’t stay in the past.
Sure he went there, stirred up some shit, and destroyed his Delorean (a couple times). But he learned and moved on. We’re just not good at doing that. At all! And when we get stuck in the past we do it at the expense of the workers we’re supposed to be protecting.
I’ve been around and around on this subject more times than I care to admit, but it’s worth the mention. No doubt It will come up in future posts as well, because its a slippery slope that I would be willing to bet 99.99% of Safety Practitioners have fallen prey to. Here’s the scenario: Someone gets hurt, you tell them their accident was preventable.
It might play out a hundred different ways. Maybe you see a surveillance video of a severe injury and the immediate 20/20 hindsight look on the person’s face indicates they “knew better.” Maybe you have some subjective method for ranking the outcome or circumstances around an event which indicate what a “reasonable” person would have done otherwise. My point is that lots of safety people do things like this, and all of them are wrong for doing it.
When you tell someone who is (or has been) injured, you’re not speaking to a system. You’re speaking to a human. A human who had limited to no knowledge of what that one day at that one moment would bring. Sure we all have varying levels of risk perception, but we all miscalculate those risks from time to time. To tell someone who has already been injured that they shouldn’t have been, is just rubbing salt in their wound.
Here’s the thing. Maybe you’re reading this thinking that I’m just playing with semantics. And maybe I am. But if I’m right, and you continue telling workers their actual injuries were preventable, you’re just telling them it was their fault and they were too stupid not to get injured. Is that the kind of Safety Professional people trust?
As you might have noticed, I’m pretty opinionated about this subject. But I think it’s something that’s so deeply, mistakenly rooted in our professional culture, that people don’t even realize it’s a problem. This is a bigger discussion than a quick blog post, but let’s start small. Next time the opportunity arises, try this: Console your injured worker, tell him or her that their only job from that point on is to get better, then actively work to figure out how to prevent it from ever happening again. Don’t mention anything about how preventable it was. Better yet, go out and search for things that could cause harm and get rid of them before they do. That’s where real success lies.
If you like the content of this blog so far, please follow and drop a reply. I’d love to hear your experiences and examples as well. And for all you Millennials who don’t know who Doc Brown is, go watch Back to the Future. You’ll thank me later.
I once interviewed for a Safety Manager position at a chemical production facility. It was a nightmare. At one point I found myself sitting alone in the plant manager’s office waiting for over an hour for him to show up.
When he finally did show, he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t have time to see me. But being the gracious and kind man he was, he suggested that if I wanted to hang around (for another few hours), he’d meet me at a bar down the street and we could talk then. I declined, but as I got up to leave he said something that stuck with me.
“You know,” he said. “I think the safety program is good when I have no idea what the Safety Man does.” Maybe that was bait, but I tend to think he was serious. That thought is what I’m going to tackle today.
If that guy was being serious about his position I’m willing to bet it’s because he actually has no idea what a good Safety Professional should do. I’m also willing to bet that there are thousands more like him. And you know what? It’s your fault.
It’s actually the safety profession’s fault at large, so don’t get your panties in a bunch just yet. This post could easily become a book chapter (or two…), so let me keep it pointed: Take a second and think about how your organization talks safety.
Is the conversation a two second blurb about the occurrence (or lack) of injuries from the previous day? Is it a check the box activity and then a quick reminder to “pay attention to your surroundings” before you send the crew out to do the real work? Or is it a meaningful, detailed discussion about what actions need to be taken in order to successfully (and safely) navigate the day.
If that conversation is anything other than the latter, safety isn’t important, it’s extra. It’s time to change the way we talk safety.
In my next post, I’m going to start breaking down some of the common pitfalls that we make which perpetuate the “Safety’s Extra” mentality. Until then check out IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR! and start thinking about getting down to business and really doing what matters.
Truth be told, I’m tired so I couldn’t think up anything wittier to title this post. Daylight Savings can bite me.
In any case, since I’m just getting off the ground with this new blog and a new book which (if all the stars align) should see publication sometime later in the year, I figured it would be worth spending some time explaining a bit. My name is Jason Maldonado. I’ve worked in Industrial Safety for the past 15 years. Before that, as you may have gathered from my first post IT’S A GIANT SLINGSHOT, SIR!, I served in the United States Air Force.
The reason I mention that is not simply to identify as a Veteran or get likes. It’s because that period of my life taught me the majority of the best lessons in leadership that I’ve had the pleasure to learn. In actually some of the best examples of great safety performance were demonstrated during my time in the military as well. Sadly, when I transitioned to civilian life, I walked into a world of regulation, interpretation, numbers games, politics, and gray areas. The difference between safety performance in the military vs. safety performance where I work now was incredibly simple, yet deeply profound: we were safe when we served because we had to be to live. That statement holds just as true in civilian industry, but our people just don’t believe it.
I’m not going to throw shade on every man and woman out there trying to make a difference in the lives of the workers, I have seen and worked with some truly amazing safety practitioners throughout the years. But even the best of us send the wrong message more than we should. We are on a tightrope with a balancing pole that caries mandated regulations on one side and meaningful work on the other. For too long the safety profession has tried to sell OSHA to the people when we should have been finding ways to comply while creating momentum and excitement for why and how the job gets done. We should have been building safety in, not making it a checklist to mark off during a pre-shift. What we’ve been left with is “Safety” as an extra, burdensome, bureaucratic thing that gets in the way.
So that’s what this blog is about: Challenging the status-quo state of our profession. I know there are many out there seeking and even achieving greatness beyond the bureaucracy, so I’m not alone in this. It’s time for safety as a function to get better, relentlessly.
If you liked this post check out THIS ARTICLE by the always engaging Phil La Duke.
Master Sergeant Brent walked into my shop on a tear. He was flustered, foul-mouthed and had no time for my BS. Not that I had an opportunity to change my regular course or mode, but I did at least get five seconds of warning as he loudly entered the bay.
“Maldo! Have you seen an update to the tech manual for the Sparrow missiles? It’s missing and support says you’ve got it.”
“No sir,” I replied hastily. I could tell he was in no mood and I had secrets. “My guys don’t use that one. Did you check Air to Air?”
If I recall correctly, it was near the end of May or June in 2004. I was on the home stretch of my one year tour in South Korea while serving in the United States Air Force. I had progressed rapidly through that first assignment and was finishing out the year as crew chief of the Air to Ground missile crew of the Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) shop. Air to Air was the bay next door. They seldom worked on Sparrow missiles, but if anyone would have had a need for the manual it would have been them. My bay was spit-shined and ready for inspection when he walked in, so initially, I didn’t think he’d dig too deep. Evidently, though, he had been given an order from on high and needed the manual ASAP. I later learned that there was a rush update that had been sent down which needed his stamp and had to be dated no later than that day (Friday).
What that actually meant was that the Airman whose job it was to update our manuals had dropped the ball and forgotten to do the time-sensitive task. Sgt. Brent was trying to save both himself and that Airman from a royal ass chewing by getting it done on time. In any case, there he was in my bay, looking for an update to a manual that had been cleverly stowed away on the corner of that support Airman’s desk. He’d left a few days earlier to go home for his mid-tour leave, so there was no way to interrogate him. I took the hit instead.
Sgt. Brent eyed my perfectly arranged workbench. I had painstakingly staged a “battle” between an army of lead seal men and lead seal bugs which I had fashioned using our shop vice and piles of used lead inspection seals. Each missile which was put into storage was sealed using a metal tie wrap with a stamped lead seal on the end of it to indicate the missile had passed inspection. I had spent my year collecting the broken seals and made art with them in my free time. He had no interest in those on that particular Friday, though.
He began rummaging through the stacks of work orders I had in folders on the bench, leaving them in disarray. I twitched a little knowing I would have to re-organize them before my supervisor would sign off. Mostly though I wanted Sgt Brent to go away. I didn’t dislike the man in any way. Quite opposite, actually. I looked up to him more than most leaders I’ve had throughout my career (still do). I wanted him to go away because of my secrets.
Not finding his quarry on the bench, he began forcefully opening the drawers one by one. He started on the left side, sliding open the small bin at the top which held pens and markers. Nothing there. That drawer slammed shut and was immediately followed by the larger middle drawer. No dice there either.
“I’m sure it’s not in there Sgt. Brent. We don’t use that one.” He wasn’t dissuaded.
Continuing on, he opened the largest of the drawers on the left. Aside from a few improperly stored cans of spray paint, there wasn’t anything that interested him in there either. Then he transitioned to the other side and I began holding my breath.
The first drawer yielded nothing. The second, nothing. Then he opened the bottom drawer on the right side of my bench. It looked odd, but not too odd. In fact, he even began shut it again, noting that the drawer was empty. But something made him pause, and reopen the drawer. For a second we both stared into the empty chasm, he perplexed, me nervous.
I pretended like I didn’t know the drawer had a false bottom and just crossed my fingers. It didn’t work though. Sgt. Brent finally noticed the anomaly and focused his gaze on the far left corner of the bottom of the drawer. It looked conspicuously like a finger hole one might use to gain access to a lower hidden level beneath the bottom of the drawer (it was). Inquisitively, he set all risk of appendage loss aside and surrendered his finger to the hole. With almost no pressure, the false bottom popped out and revealed my secrets (secret actually, but it was a big one). I furrowed my brow and waited.
At an agonizingly slow speed, he began to pull handfuls of orange rubber rope out of the drawer. In total, the device was about 15 feet long, had loops at either end and a large canvas “bowl” in the middle. One who was of a creative mind might imagine such a thing being stretched out, attached to two solid objects/posts (bay door bollards for instance), and then pulled taught by the canvas apparatus (perhaps with some sort of payload in tow).
Sgt. Brent looked at me and then back at the device. “What in the holy hell is this, Maldo?” I sighed and took a breath.
“It. It’s a giant slingshot, sir.” It was awesome! I could tell he wanted to use it but knew it wouldn’t be professional. We had actually kept that secret for at least a good six months. My guys had made it one night on swing shift out of a damaged rubber seal from a missile container. We had easily shot items over our 30’ blast walls to distances of more than 100 yds.
Sgt. Brent shook his head and I braced for impact. Instead, he began coiling the orange rubber rope around his shoulder the way an electrician wraps up an extension cord. As he finished he gently placed it back into the drawer and replaced the false bottom. With a grin, he looked at me.
“Maldo, I swear to God, if you weren’t on your way out of here,” he closed the drawer without continuing the thought and walked back out. A few minutes later, the manual update was “discovered” in support and the crisis was averted.
I don’t know how long that slingshot lasted, but I heard rumors of its existence throughout the next extent of my six-year enlistment (possibly beyond). If Sgt. Brent had thrown it away, I doubt I would even bother telling that story. I’m telling that story now for two reasons: The first is because it entertains me (hopefully it made you chuckle too). The second is a little more obscure. The second reason I tell that story is because it provides a glimpse of a leader who made a small, seemingly insignificant choice. He did it while working under duress and trying to uphold a strict deadline. He could easily have channeled all of that into my horseplay/violation/immaturity (whatever one might call it), but he chose instead to let it go and focus on what mattered. How often are we as leaders presented with choices like that one? How often do we focus on what matters?