Production vs. Safety: The Truth Behind the Myth
Next time you find yourself rushing, ask yourself if it was really because of circumstances beyond your control or another's unexpected action.
- By Larry Wilson
- Jan 01, 2019
Have you ever noticed that, compared to when you were nine years old, the “quality” of your rationalizations has improved dramatically?
When your teenage son tells you that the lawn is not cut because he was worried the noise might frighten the cat, you might well remember saying something equally flimsy to your parents as an excuse.
But you make excuses, too. Have you ever told a cop who caught you speeding that some imaginary misunderstanding pushed the pedal to the metal? And it worked, as you later boast to your friends, because he let you off with just a warning.
(Imagine if you told the truth: "Officer, the reason I'm speeding is because I wanted to get there faster and, to be honest, I don't really ever do the speed limit." Not likely!)
Consider the difference: Excuses when we were young rarely worked, now they often seem to do the trick. It's as though our excuses went through some sort of evolutionary process and the ones that didn't work simply died off. Only the good ones, the ones that worked, survived.
I've been a behavior-based safety consultant for 33 years. I have made more than 5,000 safety observations at refineries, pulp and paper mills, railroads, shipyards, pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, oil rigs, construction sites, assembly operations, manufacturing sites, utility companies, head office buildings and national research facilities: that is only a sample.
Far and away, the number one excuse for safety lapses that I hear is, "for production."
Really? Funny I didn't see you actually running instead of walking "for production." (But let's face it, running all the time is hard work, especially if it's part of everyday operations!) How long does it really take to put a seat belt on when you're driving a fork truck? Three whole seconds? How long does it take to put a fall arrest harness on? Longer than three seconds, but if a million dollars was riding on it, could you have it on in just a few minutes?
True, there are tasks, such as shoring a trench, that take time. And sometimes it can take longer than three seconds to properly lock something out and tag it. Filling out a confined space permit and checking for lower explosive limits and certain gases can, and should, take longer than three seconds, too. That is reality.
But imagine if we heard the truth about what was really caused by production and what was actually caused by, say, poor planning? When I started out, a long-haired young man new on the job, I'd hear things like, "It would be a pain in the butt always putting it on and taking it off, because I have to get off the truck every time I need to check a label." Or "I didn't want to walk all the way back to the tool crib to get the right size cutting wheel, so I just took the guard off."
Imagine if I had said: "But that's not what you told your supervisor?"
"Are you nuts?" my teammate would respond. "Of course not. I told him I was doing it for production."
What's really interesting is that even the smartest scientist won't have better excuses than this; we have all evolved through learning what excuses work better than others. But if you hear enough people saying they are doing it for production, it's likely that, as a safety professional, you draw the conclusion that the subtext is supervisors pushing production over safety. Sure, I've met a few supervisors who are too pushy, "whipping" people like the galley slaves of old.
But experience has taught me that this is not really what is making people rush. So what are the real reasons? Why do you and I rush when we know better?
We know rushing is bad for us, as is proven by the fact that nobody plans to rush. Imagine saying to a colleague before a trip: "Let's not go to the airport until 30 minutes ahead of our flight time so we can plead with everybody in the security line to let us go ahead, then sprint down the hallway in our business clothes and dress shoes so we can be the last people on the plane. That way, we can sit, soaked in our own sweat, while the plane starts pulling away from the gate."
No. Nobody plans to rush because it's a waste of energy, stressful, and, unless you like sitting in your own sweat, uncomfortable.
But what if, halfway to the airport, you realize that you have forgotten your laptop? Now how fast will you be driving? Now you will indeed find yourself begging strangers to let you butt in ahead of the line, before careering over to the gate.
So poor planning will cause you or other people to rush. But often the situation is a little more complex, and here is where our excuse-making talents come in. Say a mechanic gets out to the job and realizes that he or she has forgotten the right set of Allen keys. The line is down. Everybody's waiting. Now the mechanic is going to run. And as he pelts around the corner to his shop, he slips and falls. Ask him why the rush, and he is going to say, you guessed it, "for production." (And since it was forgetfulness that caused the delay, his supervisor might well have given him a look that encouraged him to rush.)
But here is the important thing: Production was blamed when in fact it was the state of mind of the mechanic that led to the fall.
The Self Area
Next time you find yourself rushing, ask yourself if it was really because of circumstances beyond your control (a wreck on the highway that the satnav failed to flag) or another's unexpected action. Or was it really because you are trying to make up time because of a simple performance error you made. (See Figure 1: Sources of unexpected events.)
If you're like most people (over 80 percent, in fact) the reason you are rushing is not because of the other guy or the environment/conditions. Over 90 percent of the time, the reason you are rushing lies in what we can call the "self area." In this self area there are only two main reasons for rushing: poor planning or, more often than not, trying to make up time because of a simple performance error you made.
I was chatting once to one of our consultants, Joe (who used to be a residential construction supervisor), about an incident one morning that illustrates this point neatly. A basement had been dug out and a cement truck was pulling up when my colleague realized that he had forgotten the 90-degree elbow needed to connect the drainpipes. The big boss was also coming to the site later in the day.
"How fast did you drive back to the store to get it?" I asked.
"I got clocked at 85 mph on a city street by a policeman, but I told him what had just happened and that my superintendent was coming by at lunch to see how things were going. He let me off without a ticket but told me, 'Okay, but you can't drive this fast in the city, you could kill somebody.'"
So when a company has a turnaround or shutdown, does anybody ever plan extra time for performance errors? Do you hear of firms putting in an extra 10 or 20 percent for screw-ups? Not the kind of thing that lands you a lot of contracts, even though the average human being makes more than 50 mistakes a day. (I've made about 15 or 16 already just typing this out. How many times do you have to hit the backspace bar when you type? I know, it's no big deal: We all do it. There is usually no problem with typos or punctuation slips if you're just sending an internal email. But if you misspell a client's name and then it is published in a magazine, you can look like you didn't pass elementary school. I've had articles published where the sentence did not contain a verb or noun. Not the kind of thing that makes a reader think your brilliant. Did you catch the last typo? It was put there on purpose.)
So, as it turns out, over 90 percent of the times most people rush, it's because they were trying to make up time caused by a simple performance error, such as forgetting a phone or not bringing a passport. These "static" performance errors can lead to "dynamic" performance errors where you are moving and there is potential or great potential for injury, severe injury, or a fatality. Remember Joe going to retrieve his 90-degree elbow? He doesn't normally drive 85 mph through the city. He was doing it so his performance error wouldn't slow or stop production. When people rush, they make more mistakes than normal. If they are really rushing, they make lots of mistakes. Have you ever had to pack for a trip when you were in a rush? Did you notice what happened to your error rate? Probably not at the time. But each error made you fall that much further behind, which only made you rush even more. On top of that, each new error ratcheted up the frustration, which only sent the error rate further up. And eventually the rushing led to fatigue, another force to increase the error rate.
Let's go back to Joe's basement: If the crew falls behind because he forgot the elbow, is it likely that he will ask everyone to hurry because the big boss is coming or because there will be a problem if they don't get done on time? Probably. Will he be rushing? Most definitely. Will that likely cause more errors? Yes. Will those errors ultimately slow things down and cause frustration? Absolutely. But Joe isn't a bad guy. Far from it. He's one of the nicest guys you could ever meet.
This brings us to the point that seems counter-intuitive to those who have yet to understand how costly it is to undertake a task in the wrong frame of mind: Working safely and following procedures really doesn't take that much extra time. That is the reality. But when we're behind, then any extra time taken becomes a bigger problem in our minds and thus it becomes easy to rationalize a shortcut or to start moving faster than you normally would. And once you start moving faster, your error rate goes up. If one of those errors is moving into the line of fire or losing your balance, traction, or grip, then you have increased the risk of injury or incident involving damage.
Conversely, if people are not rushing, if they are less frustrated and they are less fatigued, they will make fewer errors. Bear in mind that not all errors get you hurt. Some simply cause quality problems or interfere with customer relations. But that kind of error certainly affects business performance: Fewer errors equals good business. And fewer errors mean fewer injuries.
Good safety, in short, equals good business. It also means that the temptation to take shortcuts is less. It's not because the people involved are all lazy. It's just the opposite: They are breaking with protocol because they are already behind schedule. Remember, nobody plans for screw-ups. But mistakes happen every day, lots of them. It's important to note that there's nothing wrong with gradually getting faster at what you're doing. You'll be more efficient. But if you have to go a lot faster than you're used to going, you will be more likely to make mistakes.
Human Error Affects All Areas
So how much does human error affect your business? Is there any department where human error is unimportant? Even on an assembly line, where we have given the employee just one or maybe a couple of tasks, errors can be consequential. If the employee makes a simple mistake, like dropping a tool, that employee will have to rush a bit—because otherwise the line will back up and production will slow.
The key is to get to the root cause: Prevent the first error where possible or, failing that, check yourself when tempted to rush. In that way, the original mistake doesn't lead to another mistake, causing rushing and frustration. The more error-causing states you are in, the higher the likelihood of making another error . . . and another.
How do we keep from making mistakes in the first place? To answer this, let's first look at mistakes you make when you are learning something new or doing something that you don't know how to do well yet. We all make mistakes when we're learning. In fact, that's part of the process. But how much time do you spend learning something new? How much of your day or week are you learning something new, as opposed to doing things you know how to do well? On a typical day you get up, brush your teeth, shower, get dressed, eat breakfast, drive to work, all of it without having to learn anything (it's not like you have to ask for directions to the office). Then, once you're at work, how much time is learning something new versus being paid for things you can do well? If you're like most people, 90 or even 95 percent of your time is spent doing what you know how to do well. So well, in fact, that you're likely not worried about making a mistake.
Naturally this leaves us somewhat complacent, which can lead to a bit of "mind not on task," which can in turn lead to a simple performance error, such as forgetting something or not noticing something or striking the wrong key . . . which means you have to make a correction or go get what you forgot. How many times, despite decades of practice, have you left the house to get into your car only to realize that you forgot something and now have to go back in to get it? We make these little mistakes all the time. Now you might be a bit frustrated when that happens, but the trick is to recognize even that modicum of frustration. Recognition of this sort allows you to then "self-trigger" and stop the dominoes falling right then and there. (See Figure 2: Universal state to error pattern.)
This is the key point. The first two dominoes might have been hard to prevent falling because you know how to do whatever it is so well that complacency was almost bound to happen. But you can notice the frustration or rushing those first two fallen dominoes are causing. If you don't and then you start rushing in the car, now you have increased the risk of incident, which could include physical injury. You can make lots of mistakes that just cause wasted time, squandered money, or damaged customer relations, but it's hard to get hurt if you're not moving or things around you aren't moving—the dynamic performance errors I mentioned above.
Learning how to self-trigger before the third domino tumbles, to stop the chain reaction of rushing, frustration, and fatigue, is entirely doable—but it takes some training, which means you have to spend a bit of time and effort to learn this skill. Once you do, you prevent more than just injuries. You also prevent quality errors, production errors, and errors with customers (internal or external), all of which improve overall business performance. Reducing human error or stopping the chain reaction close to the beginning also costs nothing, unlike the massive effort or expenditure that can be involved at the other end of the chain.
The state-to-error pattern I have described is universal and (other than when you are learning something new) involved in every mistake you make or have ever made. This means that if we train individuals to self-trigger, we can quash reflexive rushing and improve everything. People won't have to rush to make up time. And they won't have to blame "production," which is rarely the root cause, just the best excuse.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.