Leading with Receding Resources

Use these five strategies for getting the most when times are screeching for the least.

Many companies kick back reflexively during tight times, like a crossed knee tapped by a rubber mallet. The same old reactions — cutting staff, shearing offprograms, retracting into turtle mode while simultaneously upping generic Safety slogans ("Pay attention," "Be careful," "Think before you act," etc.). High on the pressure, low on the strategy. Perhaps reducing expectations, but often just the opposite; like pushing an athlete to beat previous best times while simultaneously cutting his nutrition.

But a wise strategist knows that even initially grim situations also have potential upsides. She takes this a further step to glean the greatest leverage from all decisions and actions, especially when every resource is precious. So here are five strategies for getting the most when times are screeching for the least.

1. Maximize all your assets. The corporate Safety Director of a large oilfield services company reflected, "We've gotten strong results, but I can't help feeling we're leaving money on the table." And he was right. Doing well doesn't mean you couldn't potentially do even better with more honed strategy and appropriate interventions.

Case in point: In my experience, many companies fritter away potential resources. They fail to get supervisors fully aboard and committed to Safety. They don't unearth their existing strengths (e.g., uncovering personal expertise and advanced hobbies of managers and workers that could be creatively applied to Safety). They let sleeping Safety Committees lie rather than awakening them toward becoming active and expert communication agents of change. They don't effectively train workers to in turn train their peers and then anchor newly learned skills.

Make sure you realize best value from every action and intervention. You can do this, for example, by reducing resistance/objections to incoming changes in advance, setting everyone's expectations of returns and what each individually will do, clarifying your role in making change happen, nursing new changes during trial periods, steering quick course corrections, eliciting early reviews, and feeding back pioneer successes throughout the organization.

2. Reduce drag. Don't waste energy beating dead horses. Surface and eliminate anything — policies, equipment, signs, training, programs — that no longer produces strong results (i.e., time and resources wasted on interventions that have diminishing returns, that no longer get worker or management attention, or have lost credibility).

Look for interventions where supervisors barely go through the motions. Or where there are management level disconnects. Worker friction that prevents getting strong ROI. Rather than blaming others — which just creates more drag and wastes energy — look at what you can readily change to elicit interest and excitement. Identify and reduce internal obstacles to improvement. We've heard professionals in many companies complain about their own corporate attorneys or contracting pros who block bringing in new interventions that could considerably reduce injury costs. In this case, having exhausted other measures, apply the martial arts principle "Be water, not rock"; consider enlisting the power of as high-up an executive ally as you can find to overcome any internal obstacles.

3. Move to a proactive stance. When times are tough, many default to entrenching. But ironically, overprotective reactions often result in deteriorating returns. Rather, focus on heading off potentially costly problems in the bud, not waiting for the other shoe to drop, locking the barn door after the horse escapes (pick any expression).

So if you know you have an aging workforce doing physical work, don't wait for a likely cascade of costly soft-tissue injuries to fall. Transmit skills for better directing attention, getting most physical leverage as well as protecting vulnerable parts of the body (with aging workers, these include shoulders, neck, back, and knees). If your buildings, grounds, and machinery are long in the tooth, look for early measures to cost effectively prevent a later profusion of slips, trips, and falls and other injuries. Remember that "timely" trumps "expensive."

4. Look for partnerships. Share the load, don't go it alone. Team up with other branches and sites to develop high-level interventions (you pilot one, and they'll try out the other) and to share costs. Work in a similar manner with contractors to address common problems. And find out whether/how local professional associations might help solve problems cost effectively. Consider how you can get more from local business group alliances.

5. Utilize proven service models. Tight budgets can motivate better research and benchmarking to find breakthrough implementations that provide the most value. Don't waste dear resources on pigs in the poke — interventions that seem too good to be true (a $25 back belt that solves all lower-back problems rips to mind). Make sure you're likely to get best returns on your investment.

Cheaper but ineffective really wastes money. If you have limited funds, make sure they're well spent to create a resounding impact. Scarcity can be the parent of elevation. Focus on getting the most mileage from your plans and actions. Turn efficient interventions into a powerful force for step-change.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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