How Should We Conduct Field Observations?

The subject of human performance can be very interesting. Most organizations seek out consistent and reliable performance and many will often strive to develop repeatable processes. This is important. After all, if every crew changed procedures every time they performed their work there would likely be highly variable results; some jobs would be completed with higher quality than others and there would likely be some crews who experienced more injuries or accidents than others. However, there will likely be some degree of performance variability in most types of work, so how is an organization supposed to balance standardization and performance variability to achieve desired performance outcomes? There are many solutions, but one helpful approach may be through the use of field observations. 

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time you probably know that my background was in Marine Corps aviation before I got into safety and human performance education, training, coaching, and consulting. I spent years learning to fly complex aircraft, and ultimately the KC-130 Hercules. The “Herc” is a complex crew-served aircraft and each crewmember performs a unique job. Since we needed to work well together as a crew it was extremely helpful, and in fact necessary, to understand the roles and functions of all the crewmembers. From the time I was a young lieutenant my flight instructors and mentors would tell me that I should politely go talk to the other crewmembers and ask them what they did and how they performed their work. After all, observing and asking can be a great way to learn, particularly if one is trying to gain knowledge about a job he or she will never get formally trained in.

I would find one of our flight engineers or loadmasters and ask if I could watch them work and ask them about the systems they were operating. In many cases I would already know something about the systems because as an aviator I was required to know about them and how they functioned, but it was completely different to watch a “master technician” perform his job. I learned so much and if I approached the questions the right way these Marines did not seem to mind helping me understand.

Another reason this questioning and observing was so important was because eventually I would be interacting with these crewmembers so much that we all needed to know what each other was doing in order to be well-organized and conduct well-coordinated missions. Additionally, as my career progressed I became an Aircraft Commander and was responsible for mission success or failure and the wellbeing of my crew. So, I had to know them and what they did.

That may be a story from Marine aviation, but isn’t that what safety practitioners and safety professionals, as well as operations supervisors, managers, and leaders do? Aren’t they responsible for mission success or failure and the well-being of their workers at the “sharp end” (where the hazardous work gets done)? If so, why do some field observation techniques become misdirected over time? In many cases rather than going out into the field or onto the shop floor to observe, ask how people do their jobs, to learn, and to help determine better ways to achieve success and methods to take care of employees these observations go a different route. In some cases they become a way of documenting deficiencies or a way to identify non-compliant employees so they can be forced to comply with the rules (even if the rules aren’t working anymore).  I am not arguing that Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) is unimportant, but that field observations can add value to BBS when managers get out from behind their desks to ask questions like “How do you do your job?”, “What is your workday like?”, “Are there any rules that make it easy for you to do your job or that make it harder for you to do your job?”, or “What resources can we provide to help you do your job?”

This last question is one of my favorites. I am a big proponent of empowering front line supervisors and crews because oftentimes they know the best way to get work done safely and efficiently. In many cases, if management asks them, they will provide suggestions. However, they need resources and many times that includes safety resources, a safety professional to help them vet their safety procedures or risk controls, and the necessary time, tools, equipment, and support to get the job done right. So, the next time someone inquires about crews and whether or not they are doing their jobs correctly, maybe one strategy is to get out to where the crews are, meet them where they work, and ask them about their work and what leaders and managers can do to help them. After all, they are often the ones doing the work that brings in revenue to the organization so shouldn’t they receive the support they need?