Most organizations continue to “get by” with the way things are, accepting things as “the way we’ve always done it.” This is because performance improvement will not improve about on its own, nor do improvements in human performance occur by chance when new people are hired. The only proven way to ensure consistent high-level human performance is to instill a culture where only high standards are accepted and where mistakes are acknowledged and learned from. Unfortunately, changing culture is difficult and may be met with significant resistance due to the inertia of the current organization.
A massive part of Human Performance Improvement is ensuring that management’s standards are extremely high. Consider any accident or near miss. Rarely was it the result of a single, spontaneous event. Most often, several small, existing issues compound to exacerbate a mistake, resulting in injury or failure. Upon investigation, it often becomes apparent that the removal of any single causal factor could have completely avoided the entire incident. The old steam leak created that puddle, which combined with the tired off-going operator not paying attention and led to his slip-and-fall. Therefore, it becomes imperative that even small issues (e.g., a minor steam leak, water on the floor) are not tolerated.
Regarding human errors and mistakes, the level of tolerance must be similarly low. This is not to suggest that mistakes must be punished, since punishing an honest mistake will result in employees failing to report the mistake and attempting cover-ups. Rather, learning and training from the mistake is the desired outcome. A trainable mistake is valuable, and reporting must be encouraged and briefed to the entire organization. Consider how much money and lost time could be saved by training a mistake and avoiding it altogether next time – wouldn’t you train on every mistake?
Still, mistakes will inevitably happen; therefore, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure the likelihood of their occurrence and (if the risk is acceptable) their severity is minimized and planned for by implementing controls. These controls may come in the form of checklists, pre-job briefings, run-throughs, and a solid training and qualification program.
One tool I used during briefs was to ask my team, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” Each member had to give me a scenario, including either how they would ensure it did not happen or what they would do if it did happen, all the way down to what the call on the radio would sound like. Doing so allowed me to gauge their level of comfort with the evolution, including level of knowledge. After the evolution, a debrief of what went well and what did not was written up and would become part of the evolution package for briefing during the next similar evolution.
From my experience, walking into a poorly-performing organization and being intolerant of “small” issues is not generally met with enthusiasm – “that’s the way it’s always been” is the old refrain. Similarly, asking a bunch of questions at a brief will initially get a lot of eye rolls from the “old school” guys. Still, when attempting to change an organization’s culture, it is important to get buy-in from all employees if you want to realize gains in performance. Never compromise your standards.