Leadership’s role in preventing human-caused downtime

Posted by on Feb 10, 2012 in Facilities Management, Incidents/Downtime, Leadership | 0 comments

I’m often asked, “What is the single, most effective thing we as leaders can do to eliminate human-caused downtime?”  My answer is that the leader must be the example and never the exception.  I say that because leaders occupy a very special place in the sociology and group dynamics of an organization.  Consequently, the degree to which their behavior is viewed, scrutinized, and mimicked is amplified, sometimes exponentially.

Sir Isaac Newton explained that, in physics, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  When it comes to human behavior, the idea is much the same except the reaction may not be equal or opposite.  We are, after all, a little more complex than inanimate objects.  The concept in human behavior that corresponds to this law of physics is:  If you want to change behavior in an organization, the leadership of the organization must change their behavior.

Perhaps an experience I had in the Navy would illustrate what I mean.  I was initially stationed to a submarine that was in overhaul, being basically rebuilt in a shipyard.  We were getting to the end of the overhaul and it was necessary to clean the ship to put it back to fighting condition.  For those of you that are familiar with construction sites, you know that dirt and debris are everywhere.  The same is true for a submarine during overhaul.  We had a big cleaning job to do.  My assignment was to clean the bilges in an area under the diesel generator, one of the worst areas.  I had to put on coveralls, climb under the diesel into the bilges, and clean out all the debris and dirt.  It was a miserable job, to say the least.  I had a helper who climbed under the diesel with me to help out.  We spent a good two hours working under the diesel and found ourselves even joking about the stuff we might find and whether it would be alive or …?

When the job was done, my new friend (Bob) and I were covered from head to toe in grease, grime, and who knows what, but the area under the diesel was clean.  As we stood next to the diesel and began to strip off our coveralls, I asked Bob what he did on the ship.  It was only then that I saw the two silver oak leaves on his collars as he started to remove his coveralls.  He said he was the captain.  I was too shocked to say anything.  Here the captain of the ship had spent the last two hours helping me clean out one of the dirtiest places on the ship.  He said, “You look surprised.”  I had trouble forming sentences in that moment.

He just smiled and told me that as a leader he needed to show everyone that on a submarine there is no job that is beneath anyone on the ship, that every job is important because our lives depend on the job being done right – even my assignment to clean out the bilges.  It’s true.  The bilges pump out the water when the ship has a leak.  If the bilges are full of debris, it will clog the strainers and the bilge pumps won’t work.  When you consider how critical a flooding incident is on a submarine, you realize that the captain was correct to have this perspective.

Be the example, never the exception

Commander Robert Mitchell’s lessons on leadership had a profound effect on me and stick with me to this day.  His simple act did more than just alleviate his need to make sure the job was done correctly.  It inspired his crew to think differently about their jobs and the importance of understanding that even “little things” matter.  While he never explicitly said so, it was evident that he aspired to always be the example and never the exception for our crew.  His behavior was mimicked by the officers and supervisors.  After all, he wouldn’t tolerate anything else.

As leaders in mission critical environments, our behavior needs to be the example of what we want to occur in the field.  If we want step-by-step compliance of procedures, then we need to comply step by step with those procedures.  If we want people to clean up their spaces, we need to pick up the piece of debris that’s on the floor and put it in the trash.  To the degree these behaviors are a habit for leaders, others in the organization will follow.  If we talk and show by our actions that risk mitigation is a top priority, others will talk and act accordingly.

Leaders are teachers by default of their position and people learn by hearing, seeing, and practicing.  As leaders, it is our job to tell, show, and uphold expectations for the behaviors we want to exist in our organization.  If you’re a leader, unfortunately for you, you are never “off the clock.”  Even when you’re out with your family at the mall, other employees will see you and either report on your behavior or mimic it.  At off-site employee gatherings where you may feel it’s important to “let your hair down a little,” remember that you are still under the microscope of organizational reflection.

Changing behavior in an organization is actually much more complex than this one simple lesson in leadership implies.  The process of changing behavior depends on a lot of variables such as social environment, cultural norms, values, inter-organizational group dynamics, and a myriad of other things.  It’s important to understand that we’re naturally hard-wired to be social creatures.  This hard-wiring translates to behaving in ways that gain social standing in the organization.  (Social standing is another term for appreciation within an organization.)  Due to this complexity of human interaction, we cannot always predict how others will react.  As an example, a leader’s behavior may not be reflected, but rather resented within the organization. It depends on the unique situation.

The good news is that if you’re persistent in your modeling of desired behaviors, there will be people that recognize the value of the things you do and will appreciate them.  Seek these people out and appreciate them for this.  It will reinforce the good behaviors you’re trying to bring to the group.

So let’s boil this down a little for our daily application.

  • Be the example of what you want in the organization in word and deed.
  • Never be an exception to the rules, unless you want this to be an organizational value too.
  • Realize that you live under a microscope as a leader; you never have a “day off.”
  • Hold everyone to your expectations, most importantly yourself.

So how does this reduce human-caused downtime?  Easy – as the leader, behave in a way that shows people that risk mitigation is the reason for the organization’s existence.  Examples:

  1. Learn and know your equipment and systems.  As an example, show that knowing the equipment and systems is important.
  2. When asked about a process or procedure, immediately refer and look up the question in the policies/procedures.  Show that you use them and expect to hold people accountable to the policies/procedures.
  3. Spend time observing maintenance or operations.  By being in the field and monitoring the process, you show that you care about not only what is being done, but how it is being performed.  Make sure that you know the procedure/process and that the people are following it.  Demand exacting compliance and consideration of actions/results.
  4. Ask questions; be inquisitive.  Show people that it is okay to question actions, especially when it comes to safety or risk mitigation.
  5. Reward good behavior.  If you see someone maintaining risk mitigation as a top priority, thank them.  (Do so publicly when possible and appropriate.)
  6. Pick up trash. This act lets everyone know that no job is beneath them and that cleanliness of the facility is important. (Thank you, Commander Mitchell!)

As a leader, your actions reveal your true values, just as the actions of an organization reveal their culture and the values of their leadership.  You can see that you have a responsibility to shape the behavior of your organization.  You have the power to make a difference, whether as a first-line supervisor or vice president; so be the example, never the exception.

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