Episode 7-V-Speed Academy Leadership Lesson Number One: Dealing with Operational Workarounds

This is a short podcast episode where I deliver some education or at least opinion and perspective on leadership, operations and safety performance based on things I have seen or experienced or perhaps read or learned through dialogue with colleagues.

In this episode I want to talk about the subject of operational workarounds or where operational teams will modify procedures to meet the goals of the organization,

This can be a touchy subject because in a perfect world we want 100% compliance, but is that always possible and is it possible that workers are placed in a position where they cannot fully comply with all the workplace rules or informal demands?

As an example, what if management says you have to meet the shortened production deadline no matter what, but at the same time complying with all the rules or formal procedures may result in delays and missing the deadline?

Also, is it possible that employees are not equipped with the resources they need to get the job done safely and comply with rules and procedures? As an example, I was on a job site during a consulting engagement and I noticed a modified tool, which apparently the workers modified because the tool didn’t meet their needs. This isn’t surprising.

Additionally, I recently read an aircraft accident report where the pilot placed a NVG case in front of the yoke to relieve control pressure off the yoke during the loading of bulky cargo. Maybe he was trying to make the procedure more effective, efficient and safer, but in the process forgot to remove the case. Then after takeoff the case blocked the control movement and the aircraft ultimately crashed.

I believe these types of workarounds happen a lot and in the mind of the operator they are necessary. Is it right to simply run around and chastise employees for implementing workarounds or what Karl Weick refers to as “bricolage” or the artful use of what’s at hand? Of course, some workarounds simply should not be permitted. We can’t have employees removing machine guards to get the job done faster. But isn’t that where strong leadership comes in? Shouldn’t leaders get out into the field and on the production floor to try to understand the challenges employees face when getting the job done? This doesn’t mean workarounds are simply ignored, because as the saying goes, “what we permit, we promote,” and ignoring workarounds because they are successful is like giving tacit approval. What if leaders engaged the workforce in a dialogue to find out what they needed to improve the system and what if these potential improvements were vetted to verify they were safe and didn’t violate regulatory compliance? Would it be possible to create a middle ground between compliance and workarounds so that a formalized process could be developed to improve production and safety performance? Some people might call this process Management of Change or MOC, but I don’t think the MOC process is used enough to identify gaps between work as imagined vs. work as done. 

Safety is an emergent property and we don't always know how safe a system will be when it is designed. It is more than the sum of its parts. So, once a system is put into operation and workers start interacting with the system we begin to understand aspects about safety and we can compare those to what designers and system safety engineers planned when they designed and developed the system. At the 2014 American Society of Safety Engineers Professional Development conference Sidney Dekker talked about how workers "finish the design," meaning they will often come up with what they see as improvements to rectify some of the deficient functional aspects of the system. This can be a good thing, or their changes could have negative consequences. That is why it is important to develop the dialogue between workers and leaders so leadership and management may learn about shortcomings and what may need to be improved.  

What do you think? What is the role of the leader in balancing procedure compliance and rule compliance and identifying the challenges workers face in the field in getting the job done? What can leaders do to improve the process and help minimize cross-purpose goals and misalignment in the organization?

Thanks for listening and I wish you a safe and productive and happy day!