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Engaging with your workforce

Daniel Hummerdal

Presented by: Daniel Hummerdal, founder and director of Safety Innovation - Art of Work.

Run time: 34:33

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Construction forum podcast Daniel Hummerdal

Presenter: Daniel Hummerdal

Italic text denotes audience member.


Mr Daniel Hummerdal:

Good afternoon everyone, it's a pleasure to be here to talk to you today about engaging for high performance. I would like to start with a question to get you thinking and engaged a little bit. Why do people come to work?


To get money.

Pay bills.

Paying bills. To prevent idle hands at home. Because you have to.

So, they're not coming to work to be safe then. This is what I believe. People do not come to work to be safe. They come to work to do a job. Despite this businesses and organisations continue to apply a very rigid safety lens to understand work, to stop bad events from occurring. As if that is going to help people to get the job done. As if everything will be okay, everything will be safe. As if we can finally arrive into the promised land where nothing bad will happen to us, if we can only prevent all the bad stuff.

As a consequence safety has become something dreadfully boring, negative and tedious, and we have produced a very difficult culture to work in. I do think that we're still killing too many people and we're still hurting too many people, and we have too many ergonomic issues being played out. But I do not think that the traditional safety lens in terms of preventing anything unacceptable is the way to get to the goal. I think the way to get to the goal is to turn the equation around and ask what is it that people try to achieve. What have we, as an employer, done to help them, to enable them to achieve that in a safe, productive, efficient, well-being kind of way? But we're so focused on everything that can go wrong that we forget about setting people up for success.

In terms of engagement, I've been to numerous pre‑starts and you get the project leaders, then your.... Yesterday we had someone cut their finger. This is the stuff that we don't want to have on this site. As if safety is a chore, as if people choose to cut their hand or something like that. As if you need to motivate people to be safe. I am yet to meet the first person who's not motivated to be safe. I have been in various industries and I do a lot of work with front line employees.

Okay, I'm getting engaged already. How about yourself? Let's see.

The point I'm trying to make is that instead of talking about safety, instead of having safety as the golden standard that we want to achieve, that alluring goal of zero harm, let's work on the other side of the equation. Let's work towards success. I'm not talking about sexism, I'm talking about getting the work done. I'm talking about achieving those things that we're supposed to achieve, in a controlled kind of way.

I'm going to start with a little bit of a story that came out of this photo that I took when I was on a construction site three or four years ago. I saw this guy. I'm a psychologist by training, I know nothing, nothing about – now I know some things about construction sites, but at the time I didn't so I felt completely lost walking around. I had this brand really crisp type orange shirt on me and I looked like a corporate monster. Monster? I don't know, monster, corporate guy, walking around, and I felt lost because I didn't know what I was looking at. I'm not even a safety professional so I couldn't spot hazards, I couldn't spot controls and procedural breaches. What do you look for then? Well, I picked out this guy. Not this guy, but the spanner and the piece of pipe because I could tell that that was home made because the spanner was blank and shiny and looked engineered, whereas the piece of pipe was rugged, had pieces of paint on it and it looked not engineered. I asked the safety manager that I was with at the time "Is this an approved solution?" He said "Well, we've been doing it that way for the last 25 years". Interesting. I took a photo, went back and I spoke with my manager, who is the safety for the organisation, I asked him "Is this okay?"  He said "I don't know". He sent it out to the organisation, no we banned this", and the others said "No, no, this is how we're doing it".

I doubt that you will find in any – are we okay with the microphone? Up? Down? No? Okay – that you will find any procedure saying "Hey, take a piece of random length pipe and put it on a spanner". Now, of course, we could look at this situation and evaluate it from a safety point of view. You will probably find that there's a bit of a risk that the spanner is not designed to keep up with the torque of having a random length piece of pipe stuck to it. You might build all kinds of pinch hazards with the bad fit between the pipe and the spanner. But that's about it really. You can start talking about what happens if it breaks, it will fly up in his face, but I think this is much more telling about something else that is going on in organisations every day, every hour, thousands of times every day. That is, why is he doing this?


Easier than having a small spanner? Yes?

He's trying to achieve the outcome.

He's trying to achieve the outcome. The tool that he has been provided with, it could potentially be this tool, but for the sake of argument, say that the organisation provides him with this shiny engineered tool according to the procedure and he discovers very soon that that is actually not good enough to get the job done. That is what we keep finding, over and over again. I'm going to show you a bunch of photos and a bunch of stories today about this being played out.

If we do not provide people with good enough solutions, they will come up with a solution themselves. They do this not because they're bad people, not because they're not committed to safety or that they're risk takers, they do this because they care about the employer, about getting the work done, but they do it in what is considered a local solution and that may not be good. There might be a fragile solution that he thinks, or she thinks, is good enough. The problem is, if you do not provide that solution, that will mushroom out and will become something else, and you're not in control. You're not even informed that this is going on every day. It happens to procedures, it happens to tools, it happens to the drawings, to the papers that you send out there, if the gap between the design, what is being provided to people, and the reality, is too big. There is always some sort of gap. The question is, is it too big? Then people will do something about. It's captured in this quote here, that any design will have some sort of degree of ignorance in it.

Where do you find the wooden pallets, blocks, and the little wannabe shims. Where do you find a procedure saying that? Where do you keep those approved things? No, you won't, but it exists, it's always there. People do this because they have to, because they are innovative, because they're good. If you would ask people "What are the hazards on this site?" do you think they will talk about this? No. This is normal work.

Same with the previous picture, with the guy there. You can ask him about hazards and things like that, and you might potentially capture "No, it might break and fly up in my face". However, if you ask him about "What's frustrating here?" you might capture this because there was another aspect of this event where he put his back under the piece of pipe and pushed up using his legs as force, so it looked very cumbersome using it.

You can ask people about "What are the innovations, what are the things you have come up with that we could learn from?" By exploring work you stand a much better chance of discovering things like that where you're about to lose control. You get engagement and you get really good ideas from people about where their sensitivities are, where things are going out of hand, also what's working well.

What's going on here? It's difficult to see but someone had tilted this lamp in a particular direction because they need more light. That's my interpretation of it. If it's the truth, I'm not sure. You can see that people are trying a few different things.

This in an interesting little panel, operator panel. You can see that there is a bunch of stickers that have been put on it after it was delivered. Someone has written with a felt pen down here. This was after an incident that I investigated where this panel was involved. I discovered that there was indeed an operator's manual to this tipping station. It was written in German, but it doesn't matter because it was found in a drawer in a desk, far from where this was. The guys had been left to their own device to develop their own little manuals. This is their operators manual, it's written here, here, here, here, and up here.

Was something going wrong here? No, not until something went wrong. Could you capture this before it went wrong? Yeah.

Here's another one of those. You've got the handrail there, it's supposed to keep people safe from this train that is running here. Handrails are phenomenal, right, they just keep people safe. I'm not sure how that works.

There's a plastic piece here, there's a cable tie. I couldn't figure out what it was until the loco driver said "Well, I use it when I park because it is a tipping station, you need to line it up so some arms can come out and grab the carts. So I'm going to park it now and line it up with the third row of the safety net". So he did. I don't think this has any particular safety implication, but it's interesting to see how ingenious people can be left to their own devices, and it happens every day. This is not a choice for you, to accept this or not, because it's there whether you want it or not. It's called variability and I'm going to talk a little bit about that. The choice is, do you want to know about it? Do you want to work with people in addressing this?

The question I ask more and more is where does success come from? Why don't you have more incidents and accidents than you do? Is it simply because people follow rules? Because you have provided them exactly with what they need for every possible situation? Or is there something else going on?

The best thing I have ever read about success is what's up here on the screen. I'm going to try to explain it, that for success to happen you need two sides. You need the stuff that you find in books, which is the left side, the conceptual stuff. Best practices, standards, engineering principles that have been tested and validated over time. All these things you can read about in a book. We need that, we don't want our things to work purely by chance or by luck. We need to rely on our past experience and wisdom of what works and what doesn't. The mistake I think most organisations have made is that they think that this is enough, that you think you can just yell at people and tell them "The book says... the standard is this" and then you leave them to develop their things underground and you will completely miss it. Every design needs to be applied in a context that is unique, with this accumulated burden of lots of systems coming together. You can sit at your desk and you can read one quality system, one safety system, one procedure at a time. But at the shop it's messy because you've got 900 procedures regulating activity.

I spoke with a professor – what's his name, Braithwaite – who does work into work is imagined and work is done. He interviewed nurses and doctors about a particular activity and he spoke with 90 of them. They could give him three or four procedures that governed that activity and he knew there was 120 procedures. That's a massive disconnect between two different systems of thinking.

Here you have experience. Here you have things that are changing. You have a subcontractor coming in dealing with a client and you cannot deal about those specifics. You cannot read about them in a book. There is no book written about it. If you wrote it no‑one will read it because it's too specific. It's interesting to you and to no‑one else. You need these two sides to work together and unless you can get this side to see that this is our best guess, but we need to figure these things out. To do that you need people. If you would locate in your organisation who has the most intimate understanding of work, would you locate them at the top or at the bottom of the organisational hierarchy? Closest to the front line, or at the blunt end? That's where you have the most intimate, the most detailed knowledge, but it's often buried and people find it difficult to go out there because people are just sitting there whinging having opinions and they don't have much to contribute with. Whereas maybe with my engineering degree I have these books. Look at me, I have many leather bound books here, I'm important.

We have lost – no, we haven't lost, we have rendered one part of the organisation relatively voiceless. That's where we have so much work to be done, so much low hanging fruit. Just start interacting with people and asking them about work.

What you can do, I'm going to give you three different practices. One is to do what I suggested here, you just go out and you look for these little outcroppings of innovations, of work. Second one is explorative conversations. I'm going to explain that a little bit, which is just going out there and talking to people. The third one here is something that I call collaborative improvements, or collective improvements where you're very systematic in capturing information, and viewpoints, and experiences.

Explorative conversations. This is about asking people about their work. You can do that and I would suggest that you go home and you change your executive safety walk checklists. It's a massive waste of time of having your executives walking around checking the date of the first aid kit. Why would they do that? Ask them to go out and have these type of conversations, walk up to them and say "Hello, it's me, you've seen me on photos. What are you working on? Are you changing a fuel tank? Alright, can I have a look". "Yes". "Okay, let's see, what's difficult about this one? How can we help you in doing this task more efficiently? What ideas do you have?" The person being listened to in that kind of way is way more powerful than seeing a CEO checking the expiry date on the fire extinguisher. You can become extremely innovative in asking these type of questions and I would suggest that you ask people about what they're trying to achieve, about the obstacles that are in the way, the conditions and constraints that frustrate them. "What pisses you off around here?" That is a good question because you can feel it. You start building. Of course there's things, everything's not perfect.

Here's the thing, when connecting this back to ergonomics, that a lot of the ergonomic issues that we see is because will have to carry that load between the design and getting the work done, by being contortionists, by being in difficult situations. Ask them "What are the conditions that you have to tolerate around here?" Ah, the noise, perhaps, the heat, the sun. There's always one profession on every worksite that has the worst conditions. Ask what profession that is. On a mine site it's the tyre handler. No‑one cares what goes on out there, and that's where you have the fatalities, when the tyres blow out.

How am I doing? Time? Good? I like that answer, completely interpretive.

Collective improvements is my method of doing this in a systematic way, where I would go to site and I run focus groups. I sit down with up to 10 people at a time, separate focus groups with workforce, with supervisors and with the mangers. You put a digital voice recorder on the table and you say "Hello, my name is Daniel. I'm from Sweden. I'm a psychologist. I have no idea what happens here. Can you please help me to understand? If I don't understand I'm going to stop you and have to explain certain words", which they love. They love hearing why I'm in Australia and why Australia is such a great place.

What I'm trying to say is that you try to change the level field. You're not there as a safety professional, you're there as someone who's interested, and that's all. Normally what tends to happen, I've heard many stories about this, is that when safety people show up people start hiding things, because they're going to stop them from getting things done. You might feel good about not detecting deviations but you're probably not feeling good because you need to find deviations to justify your existence to some degree. Very tricky. So they might give you some easy ones, now the safety professional is happy, we can move on. True story.

We can talk about different things. When work is difficult, what's working well? What are the changes that were made here in the last six months that made you go "Oh, thank God for that, we need more of that"? Try to capture those good things. "Tell me about your colleagues, who of them impresses you the most? What is it that they do that you find so helpful?" and work on the positive side of things. If you can do more of that, will you be safer, or less safer? It depends a little bit on how it's done.

Speaking up is critically important. I normally ask "When have you seen someone take a step out and tell it as it is? What happened?" You hear these really heartbreaking stories of how people speak up and they get ridiculed in front of the peers and instead of fixing the vehicle that they're driving, you swap the driver, problem solved. It puts you one step lower in the hierarchy of doing things, these are all informal system or how things get done. You realise that people stop speaking up very quickly and this is why an initiative like this can help you.

You talk about ideas. My favourite question nowadays is to ask people "You can have $50,000.00 to make this a better workplace, for you and for your colleagues. How would you invest it? Where would you invest it, geographically, on site? Which corner of the site? Which vehicle?". You give someone else "You can have $2,000.00". "We'll have a barbecue". "Okay, talk to me about the barbecue, why is that helping your work, to have a barbecue here?" "Well, because we have gone through six months of redundancies and team work is down the pooper" and whatnot.

Here's one story that came out of this, talking to people. Take a minute to read it.

For each focus group I get about somewhere between 20 and 40 examples of what it's like to work in a project. After 10 focus groups you have 200 stories, maybe 400 stories, like this. It's pretty cool to invite people from corporate, project managers, front line workers, to go in and read those 200 stories together and start analysing "What is going on here? What should we address to make work more efficient?" Is this safety? Is this a safety story? Maybe. I think it's a safety in an indirect kind of way where we're starting to lose control. Is this tool fit for the job? Is this a productivity issue? Yes, he's spending an hour and a half every day. Is this a wellbeing issue? How happy is this guy? But how committed is he to the organisation, when he's taking of his own, already taxed kind of money and spending it to get the job done. How frustrated do you have to be to get to that point? I don't know, five?

This is a very cute story. If you do not provide good enough solutions people will make them, they will come up with them themselves. Are you going to be very grateful for that? You will never know about it until something goes wrong. Ask about it before it goes wrong.

Third one was a pretty good one in relation to drawings.

You get all these stories about frustrations, about all the obstacles, how people are being held back from achieving great outcomes that they want to achieve. There's no misalignment between – well, it's very rare to find misalignment between people's goals and organisational goals. What we fail to misunderstand is how to set people up for success and by doing that we get all kinds of problems downstream.

What I do with all these stories, imagine you come into a room, not much bigger than this, and you have all these examples up on the walls. You have maybe 10 people from the workforce, 10 supervisors, 10 managers, whatever works for your site. You get them to walk around, read the stories and I ask "Are there stories that relate to the same issues?" They say "Yes, there's a bunch of stories around tools, there's a bunch of stories around visibility, about speaking up". Whatever it is, it's really is really about the project giving meaning to their own stories, telling themselves what they should do something about. No‑one from corporate is giving them non‑conformances. By involving people in this, by giving them opportunity to create their own analysis, they start to care about it. All of a sudden you have enormous expectations about change and everybody wants in on it. You ask for volunteers, we want to create an improvement team to address these things. "Yep, I want to be in on it". Then you start changing things. The biggest mistake, the biggest fragility of this process is that it will be hijacked by managers. They will come in and say "I'm going to save you, I have these brilliant ideas how to solve these things". Which is a good thing, right? Heinrick, didn't see that. You're my manager, by the way, and you're good.

I coach the managers to change their role. Their role is not to lead change. Their role is to support change, to facilitate change, by asking people "What ideas do you have for this issue around tools?" "What ideas do you have about not seeing things in the dark at night, or it being slippery in a certain area?" People will speak up and they will say really stupid things. Sometimes they will say really smart things, and say "Yeah, it sounds good but we can't afford it over the next two years". That's fine. It's very handy to have a manager because they're schooled in doing cost benefit analysis of these things. I say "Unless you have a positive cost benefit analysis, you shouldn't be doing these things".

Look at the amount of time you're saving by coming up with a better way of doing it. Look at the risk reductions you're getting. Look at the wellbeing effects. Try to monetise those things. Will it reduce the number of special deliveries, for example? Will it reduce the number of waste? The number of waste – I'm not from around here. Be scientific about it, be structured about it.

Before you start reading that I'm going to tell you a story where people said – they didn't know whether to take this process seriously. On one side they suggested that we should have prostitutes in the camp. The manager was very threatened by this suggestion but he did the absolute right thing, he said "I don't know, I will look into this". He spent an hour or two hours figuring out the legal situations about prostitutes in Queensland. He goes back saying "I spent this much time yesterday to figure out an answer for you, and the answer is no, you cannot have prostitutes here and it would look bad for the company". But he showed his commitment to the process, to the ideas. He started treating these people like intelligent collaborators about making work better. By doing that he stands a much better chance to have them as intelligent collaborators in this space. He could have treated them like idiots and the process would have collapsed immediately.

What's the kind of stuff that you will find out doing this kind of process? This is my experience. It's fairly generic, there's a couple of mining specific things in here, but this is just normal work and this is how it all comes together. There's nothing fantastically exciting about this stuff, but the passion that people have when they speak about them, it's very unusual to find this type of information black on white in a report. We all know it exists out there but it's not until it's spoken, it's written down, it finds the way into report that it becomes real, it gets a life on its own and people start talking about it "Oh my God, it's all coming together that way".

The last thing I want to mention around this method is that it's not about giving up control. Leaders become very threatened when you start talking about listening to people and helping them do things. I need to tell them that no, it's nothing about that, it's about changing the roles, about using more of the brains that you have available in the organisation. It's a smarter way of solving problems, but you as the leader get to decide. You see the face of people, when they get to see their own idea being implemented on site, how much they care about that in comparison to everything else that you have provided to them and you're frustrated and disappointed that they don't see how brilliant you are.

Turning that upside down, you're not losing control, it's about co-generating ideas to make it more productive, more efficient and safer.

That's about it really. I'm missing a slide here. I tried to explain this and people think this is the silver bullet, he's from a consultancy of course he's going to say these things. This is just pure logic. If you think about – hey, look at this – think about it as a distribution. We have a plan that we want to achieve. Most of the time we get it right, otherwise we would have lots and lots of incidents. You will get some sort of normal distribution if it looks like this, or if it's more flat, I don't know. Sometimes we're better than our plan, we finish work early, we finish things better than budget. We have some innovations and it's really great and we need to figure what's going on in this green space, which is really nice to be.

Sometimes work is a bit difficult, that's on the left of the main here. People are frustrated, we are behind schedule, we are behind the budget. People start to come up with their own ideas and we don't really – things spin out of hand. Then we have the tiny little tale over here where things are so difficult that we lose control and we get safety events, where people struggle with things and they have injuries and illness all the time.

This has been the traditional safety focus for many "Let's just stop this, take this away" and we've done terribly well, we're pretty good at it. It's not going to be enough. What I'm suggesting is broaden your focus, not shift your focus, broaden your focus. Learn from what pisses people off, what makes them happy. Try to help them, get creative in setting them up for success. If you manage to shift things from where they are difficult to where they are easier to perform, you will allow them to work further away from where control is lost, which is what we call up here, to be safer, but you allow them and the organisation to have more predictable outcomes, productive and efficient outcomes. That's the logic of the argument. It's not an over promise because I'm not delivering anything. Yeah, true story, some of them.

So, what do you get? Oh, this is a bit fluffy. You get really cool things. You get people who are proud, who tell you "No, no, no, don't come back this week, come back next week because we are about to do these things". They want to show you. You get managers who are so much more relaxed when you show up, they ask one of their employees to show them around because they're so comfortable about everything that is going on.

You identify an enormous amount of waste going on. You will discover all of the local solutions that are going on and you become very grateful for people even sharing this with you. It's terribly exciting. I just encourage you. You don't have to be as structured as I suggested but you can just go out there and have these explorative conversations. Even during safety walks don't ask the traditional safety questions. Try something new. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, it's not likely to happen, let's put it that way.

Thank you very much for listening to my presentation.

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