Tower Industry 100% Tie Off 24/7Campaign - Part of a Transformational Change Process?

I recently read a thought-provoking question regarding the Wireless Industry Safety Task Force’s 100% Tie Off 24/7 Campaign. The question posed was whether or not this was old news and if it is just another form of rhetoric. While this may be a valid question, I think a more fitting question is, “How will the 100% Tie Off  24/7 Campaign fit within a larger transformative effort?”

Tower safety will not start and end with a tie-off campaign, but this campaign may be part of a larger effort towards transforming safety within the tower industry. I think one reason some campaigns may have a hard time “sticking” is because many often see them as the transformation itself, rather than as a path to the transformation. Additionally, it may be rare for people to actually experience true, lasting transformational change. This is because transformation can take a very long time. I am not talking incremental change, such as change achieved through a one simple policy, but transformative, disruptive change that takes an industry from one state of existence into a completely new state of existence. Most people experience minor change and often this change lacks follow-through because there is no clear roadmap for making the change stick. Over time organizations and employees drift back into their old habits, because there is no long-lasting compelling process for following through on the change. What is often needed is a roadmap or a strategy for transformational change, because it takes a long time. 

Prior to becoming a consultant, trainer, and educator in the areas of leadership, safety, human performance, and organizational resilience, I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps. During my Marine Corps career I experienced several transformations, where either segments of the organization (or the entire organization) was transformed, which ultimately changed the organizational culture. One example was when we transitioned to a completely new kind of automated aircraft (the KC-130J Hercules). Our old habits and methods that had been developed over decades in our legacy aircraft would no longer work on the new aircraft, because it was so automated. The J model of the aircraft required new ways of managing the crews and the automation and the change process required training and disciplined adherence to the new work methods. This took time and required an open mind, particularly on the part of us “old dogs” who had more experience in the legacy (older) aircraft. Although it was challenging, we worked through the difficulties because we knew change was the only option and the right way to move forward. When we detected drift back towards our old habits, we corrected it right way, including policing our peers and ourselves. We created a cadre of dedicated teams who took the change and moved it forward, like a series of first downs on the football field, moving the chains, until finally reaching the end-zone.

This is one example, but how can a major industry take the necessary steps to enact long-term cultural transformation? I think John Kotter provides a relevant blueprint, with an 8-stage process for major transformational change. The stages are paraphrased below:

1. Create a sense of urgency

2. Build a guiding coalition

3. Create a vision and strategy

4. Communicate the vision

5. Empower action

6. Create short-term wins

7. Consolidate accomplishments and produce more change

8. Anchor approaches in the culture (Kotter 23)

So, let’s take a look at this approach and see how it may apply to transforming safety in the tower industry:

1. Create a sense of urgency:  I think this has been done. In calendar year 2014 there have already been a number of fatalities and if this isn’t alarming enough, OSHA’s letter to the industry, dated February 10th, should serve as a wake-up call and a call to action. There is no denying that the sense of urgency is there. It is apparent that the comfort of remaining the same and doing the same things is outweighed by the need to change, to do something different, and to make a concerted effort to improve safety in the tower industry.

2. Build a guiding coalition: The Wireless Safety Task Force is comprised of numerous member organizations that can help steer and drive this transformation. The task force will need the help of other organizations, and incorporating a diverse group of change agents that can assist the process and help the industry drive safety may help.

3. Create a vision and strategy: In this stage the guiding coalition should create a vision for the future that demonstrates what the future will look like and a strategy for how to achieve that vision. The vision should be an overarching goal and paint a picture of a future state. The strategy for achieving the vision is a high-level approach to enacting change in the industry. For example, a vision could be “an industry with zero fatal mishaps.” The vision is larger and long-term, as opposed to smaller, short-term goals. The vision should also be something that followers can believe in and it should be viewed as achievable.

The vision must be clearly articulated so that the entire industry and stakeholders understand what the vision is. Imagine a world where tower workers are no longer killed on the job. Imagine a world where tower workers’ jobs are designed so they are less error-provocative. Imagine a world where towers are designed with safety as an inherent requirement and where tower work is deliberately designed to place employees in a position where it is easy to tie off and where teams will work together, backing each other up, to ensure nothing less than 100% tie off is acceptable. Imagine a world where tower work is designed, understanding that humans will make mistakes and that the environment should be designed to minimize the consequences of human error. This long-term vision must be established and articulated to all stakeholders from tower designers, to carriers, to construction, erection, and maintenance contractors, and even to the end-customers.

4. Communicate the vision: In this phase the vision that was developed is communicated using multiple methods and formats to reach a wide audience. Communication is key to achieving the necessary support for long-term change. It appears that the Wireless Safety Task Force has a multi-media campaign to do this.

5. Empower action: This is where organizations are empowered to take action for safety improvement. Empowerment is more than a buzzword, and it includes methods for removing obstacles for those who want to drive towards the overarching vision. If there are policies, procedures, or equipment that makes it difficult for employees to be safer, these need to be changed.  Also, if we are ever going to learn about how failures occur, we must understand “the mind of the operator.” This means understanding how employees get into a position of not tying off 100% of the time and addressing the causal factors that make them feel like it is okay to not be tied off.

How is this done? Through empowering action, perhaps crewmembers could be provided with an open forum to express their opinions and help explain to leadership the conditions they face on a regular basis and the circumstances that make it challenging to tie off 100% of the time. This is in no way an excuse to allow a policy that permits anything less than 100% tie-off, but in order to understand what needs to change, we need to understand the reality of what is going on. Many times the workers and teams can help with finding those answers. After all, they are the ones out there day in and day out getting the work done.

Another method for empowering broad-based action, which is similar to worker discussion forums, is a near-miss reporting system. This has been done in the aviation industry for years and I am continually amazed when I hear that companies don’t have a method for employees to report near-misses. Near-miss reporting systems can be a vital method to help leadership and management understand what really goes on out in the field and the hazards faced by employees. If near-miss reporting systems are anonymous employees may feel more comfortable making a report, even if it means reporting situations where they did not tie off. The key is providing them with a method to tell leadership what is wrong, and leadership and management must be willing to hear this information. Leadership and management must also take action to correct the situations and communicate the changes to the entire organization. If employees take the time to tell leaders and managers what is wrong and no action is taken, employees may stop reporting because they feel their efforts are wasted.

6. Create short-term wins: This is where small elements of the actions (which are created based on the vision) are tracked and small wins are achieved. For example, considering the 100% Tie Off 24/7Campaign, short-term wins could include the capturing and sharing of information from organizations that were “caught in the act” of doing something right. How often do organizations scold employees for doing the wrong thing, for violating policies or rules, yet fail to acknowledge their efforts for doing the right thing?

This is not to say that employees should be rewarded for basic compliance with the law, but by tracking crews’ compliance with 100% tie off, identifying ways that seem to force tower climbers into positions where they feel 100% tie off inhibits their work, and then creating an open forum to allow them to express their opinions may be a way to help leadership understand ways corrective action may be taken. When these corrective actions are taken the stories can be shared with others. Organizations can describe ways they made their organization safer and achieved greater safety gains.

7. Consolidate accomplishments and produce more change: In this stage the industry capitalizes on the successes and builds upon the momentum to create more success. When communicated successfully, positive change efforts and accomplishment can create a contagious feeling among people. The short-term achievements should be momentarily celebrated, but are not the end. The achievements may be shared from a best-practices standpoint to help others create positive change as well. Additionally, when these gains are realized, empowered employees and organizations may find new or even better ways to improve safety efforts. 

8. Anchor approaches in the culture: Simply put, organizational culture may be viewed as the values and norms of an organization. Unfortunately during many transformation efforts, some groups may try to go from step 1 to step 8 instantly because what they really want is a cultural change, but this is not feasible. In many cases there can be a rapid cultural transformation, but typically the culture change follows a process and includes changes in plans, programs, and policies; it doesn’t just change itself. Additionally, if a deliberate change strategy is not followed, what may appear like culture change may be temporary changes in behavior, rather than new beliefs, values, and norms for “the way we do things around here.” Additionally, once cultural change takes hold, employees must get to the point where they could not imagine going back to the old ways of doing business.

This brings me back to my point about my experiences with the new KC-130J aircraft. Once our unit had completely transitioned to the new aircraft we could not imagine going back to the old procedures and outdated habits because they would have made us less safe. When we saw the old habits cropping up, we addressed them immediately and corrected them because that was not the way we did things anymore.

So, is the 100% 24/7 Tie Off Campaign old news? I am not sure, but I think it is a smart approach to show commitment to a larger long-term transformational strategy. It just needs to be understood that this campaign by itself is not going to fix safety in the industry, but is part of a long-term process. In order to see true change I think there needs to be a collective effort with multiple voices at the table. Those out in the field are the ones this transformation is designed for. Their employers must be committed, and the industry must be committed to staying the course. Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but the collective efforts of industry organizations and their employees may help bridge the gap between the current state and the desired vision of the future.

Navigating the world of transformational leadership may not be easy, but the rewards can be tremendous. Sometimes it helps to learn from others who have experienced this kind of transformation. Here is some information about a short executive seminar on transformational leadership I conduct where I explain the process we used in the Marine Corps, and translate lessons-learned in terms that can be understood by other industries. 

The more we can talk about change in the industry the more we can advance towards the goal of improving safety!

Reference: Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2012.