Making People Feel Safe Enough to Tell the Truth About Safety

Multiple Authors

Operational learning, also known as human and organizational performance (HOP), is a different way of thinking about industrial safety that complements rather than replaces traditional, procedural- and compliance-based safety programs. Introduced in 1990 by James Reason in his book “Human Error,” and further developed by leaders in industrial psychology such as Sidney Decker and Todd Conklin, operational learning is a mindset that Micky Hannum has thought about a lot, way before he even knew it was a “thing.” 

Before he read the books and before he began talking about it within the AFS community, Hannum was adopting and applying its principles from the early days of his career as an hourly employee in the chemical industry. He saw that some written procedures were only mentioned when someone was injured, he said. Prior to the injuries, management was aware procedures weren’t followed but turned a blind eye; and if an injury occurred, the person was disciplined but nothing was changed. 

“I just had this thought that it's much better to get people engaged,” he said. “We were required to follow a process safety management standard in which multiple disciplines work together in a process hazard analysis, discussing what and how things could go wrong––meaning fires, explosions, and other catastrophic events. At that moment, I realized the engineers design processes one way, and operators think the same equipment is supposed to work another way. After these teams meet to learn from each other, you’ll often hear, ‘I didn't know it was meant to run like that,’ or the engineers say, ‘I didn't know that's how they needed to run this operation.’ So, the idea of getting people together to talk about the process really resonated with me. While working closely with other process safety manager, we were able to see how to use this type of learning from teams to help with traditional safety and reducing the number of people being injured.”

Since then, Hannum has studied the use of learning teams and has introduced the concept to complement The McWane Way principles, values, and behaviors that each team member––starting with leadership––is supposed to use the principles. In the principle of Excellence, one of the desired behaviors is: “I believe the people closest to the work often have the best ideas to improve the work.” 

He also teamed up with Metal-Technologies Vice President of EHS Brent Charlton to present on the subject at the AFS EHS Conference last fall, and they will present an encore lecture at the upcoming Metalcasting Congress in Milwaukee, April 23–25. 

“Brent and I are really passionate about this and want to make sure people know: A company can be in compliance and yet people can still be hurt by using only rules, procedures, and management systems,” Hannum said. “The next step is engaging people and learning from them.”

In anticipation of their upcoming program, Modern Casting spent an hour on Zoom with Hannum to explore what operational learning looks like in action and what the results are when it penetrates company culture. Following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Modern Casting: How does operational safety really differ from the safety programs currently in place in our industry? 

Hannum:  Traditional safety in the past was people writing procedures, then training people on the procedures. And if someone was injured, the first thing asked was, ‘Did they follow the rule?’ And if not, then that’s why they were injured. However, we've identified where the procedures may not cover every single aspect of their job.

We have to be mindful that in an operations setting, people have to make decisions all day long, and their operation might not be covered by the exact procedure, or the procedure may or may not be applicable to what they're dealing with in that moment. What we're trying to do with operational learning is highlight to the foundry industry that you can follow the safety regulations and rules and still end up with an accident happening––unless you're engaging people and understanding how they do the work each day. Getting people engaged, empowering them by having them be part of the solution, will lead to true ownership. The ownership does not stop at safety, and you will see it carry over into production, efficiency, and quality––all aspects of the business. Team members will have discretionary energy because they understand leaders value them and their ideas.

After you’ve built the foundation with procedures and your management system, you really need to have engagement from people. Ask ourselves, ‘Are we sure an injury happened because they didn't follow a rule that time? 

Modern Casting: It seems like the traditional approach, intentionally or not, leaves a lot of room for blaming. 

Hannum: That's exactly right. And that's what we're saying––it's not that you stop holding people accountable. That still has to happen if someone is blatantly not following a rule.

The difference is, are they allowed to challenge rules and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. This rule doesn't make sense. I'm not able to do my job with this rule.’

What can happen over time is, people start to look away because they know they have to get the job done. They drift, and then bad things happen. So, it's really important to get people involved and ask them, ‘How are you really doing this job? Not just what we think and how it's written. But what are you doing? How are you successfully able to do this job?’ 

Modern Casting: And what’s the role of middle management and supervisors?

Hannum: It takes a lot of curiosity from safety folks, managers, and supervisors to be able to go out and ask those questions and get people talking. You could do that one to one, but it's much better to do it within a team. You're learning from those opportunities––whether there was an injury, a near miss, or even which something goes right. We have to remember that overall culture, systems, and leaders drive team and individual behaviors. This is based on trust.

Modern Casting: What’s the system or the steps for putting this into action?

Hannum: People always ask, ‘What's the silver bullet? And how are you able to lower your injury rates?’ The silver bullet for me is people, and it's talking with them in learning groups or individually. Once they're trained on the job and they’ve done it for a while, they know very well how they can get hurt. The best approach is to coach people on how to ask curious questions while working with the front line. Getting employees to tell you how they're doing their job and letting them know it's safe to tell us that they’re not following the procedure exactly how it's written is critical to learning. The only way we can learn is if they feel safe to tell us something like, “we do not follow that procedure.” And at that point, when you pull the team in, the organization starts learning.

Traditionally, if there’s an injury, there will be an investigation to find out why someone  was injured. So, for example, let’s say they operated equipment without the machine guarding in place. But why did they decide to do that? You need to understand more of the context around why someone continued to operate the machine. Don’t stop with the fact that they did it. How often did a supervisor or other team members walk by that machine without the guard in place? Is there a work order to repair the guarding? Do other team members operate the machine in this condition?

In the learning teams, we're asking a lot of those questions, and pulling in the right people. If there's an engineer involved, they need to understand how the people are operating equipment and explain how the equipment was designed to run. A lot of times engineers may say they did a great job designing it and setting it up, only to find out from operations that it doesn't run effectively to make the amount of products they need to make. And then people create shortcuts or workarounds. If the two groups aren't talking together, eventually it will fall on the person who gets injured. Having those discussions before an injury occurs is critical. 

Modern Casting: What’s an example of how that plays out––why might someone improvise or create a shortcut? 

Hannum: It can happen very spontaneously. There isn’t necessarily some plan or elaborate thought behind it. In one case, someone was doing some patch work on different buildings outside and was operating a forklift to pick up sheet metal. The gentleman used gloves to put the metal onto the forks and then started to drive. He noticed that the load was shifting, so he got off the forklift and went to adjust it, but he forgot to put the gloves back on. Well, sliding metal is a little bit different than picking it up so when he slide it he cut his hand. 

But beyond the fact that he didn’t wear the gloves, we also realized that we did not have the correct cut-resistant gloves for the material. In addition, there really wasn’t a written procedure because it was a non-routine task. But the reason that we learned these nuances was from asking questions following the event.  

Modern Casting: This is obviously not a one-and-done system. With about a dozen McWane foundry locations, how do you instill this daily vigilance among hundreds of people to create a universal buy-in?

Hannum: Well, it is a challenge. With larger companies that have really robust compliance systems, it would be easy feel to comfortable because you know you have good solid programs in place. So, our messaging is, yes, we absolutely have a great safety program, but the people who are at the most risk are also the people with the most knowledge of how they're doing their jobs. We’ve had a lot of discussions with our people in operations. The safety teams are using better questions to learn more about the context of why someone may have made a decision. It really is a shift. One of the pricniples is Accountability, with the behavior being: Own It, Correct, Learn from It, and Move One. Asking better questions and learning from events provides out team members opportunities to hold themselves accountable. It also provides the opportunity for the organization to improve systems.

This is a fairly new concept for McWane. But we're trying to use the same mindset. This is not a program––it's really just the philosophy of trying to understand that, although we have great programs, let's ask more questions to understand what we're missing in our program and how we can learn. 

One thing we've done to help drive this message is how we perform health and safety audits at our sites and when we completes investigations following an injury or a near miss. 

In the past, the auditors would say, here are your findings, and there wasn’t much discussion. Now, we've formatted it so the auditors work with people directly on the floor, whether that's safety folks, or supervisors, or even team members that are using the machinery––we get them involved, and we have discussions on the floor to identify any gaps or potential hazardous in conditions or how we're operating. 

For example, we might ask an operator, ‘What would you tell me if I was coming in and operating this machinery today? What's important for me to know and what is the worst thing that could happen?’ All of a sudden, the light bulb goes off as they’re answering those questions. They start to tell you the hazards and what controls are in place. The discussions can lead to a better understanding of how we can increase our defenses and resiliency.

The auditor has become more of a facilitator, and instead of just giving them a bunch of findings and walking away, everyone has a better chance of understanding the root cause of a gap. It really helps drive ownership instead of safety just being owned by the safety department.

Modern Casting: Is there a cost to adopting operational learning?

Hannum: Yes, there is some cost associated with getting people together for the coaching and teaching them how to do learning groups. 

One thing we’ve learned, however, is this is not just for safety. One of our machine shop managers has successfully used operational learning for quality issues, applying the same mindset. Each week, he was having issues with some gaskets on a fire hydrant, and it seemed to be increasing. So, he pulled the team together and said, ‘Hey, we need to walk through this,’ and he pulled them off the line.

He actually had some supervisors and team members who do the job tell him, ‘We're losing time here. I can’t make the product while we’re standing here talking about this.’

But the manager persisted. ‘This time is very important for us, this is going to help us.’ And sure enough, they identified that they were missing two key steps in how they were positioning the gasket. And since then, he doesn't have any of the quality issues. 

So, it may have taken time, but in the long run it has saved him from rework or any defective parts being sent to a customer. When you make that investment upfront, you'll get a return on it if you do it right and you learn from the conversation. 

Operational learning at its fullest is using the skill sets to drive improvements anywhere in the company, from operational safety to production.

We recently had a team member injured with a laceration at one of our foundries. The general manager and safety manager felt it was very important to pull a group of people together so they could better understand how and why the incident occurred––instead of who. The group of people learned from each other, and they determined they could increase the resiliency with additional engineering controls and revisions to the procedure. The investigation didn’t stop at retraining the injured team member. The general manager and safety manager know that the people closest to the work have great ideas and are part of the solution.

Modern Casting: How is it being received by the workforce?

Hannum:  You’re always going to have people who have done tasks the same way for so long, and they have a right to be a little bit skeptical. All I can say is, you have to be very diligent and ask them to bear with you. And if you do it successfully, then you build credibility and trust with people. And then they're going to want to do it for other aspects of the job. No. 1, you just built a good relationship with them, because you showed the people on the floor that you value what they say. And if you can do that to fix something that's an issue, they're going to come to you with more issues, and it's just going to be a springboard effect. You want them coming to you to talk about a problem or situation, not going back to the break room, talking among themselves, and nobody fixing it. 

This process gives management all the information they need to make the changes that are applicable. It also lets the team members know that they're being empowered to help with everything. They're not just being told, ‘Here's the rule, now follow it.’ 

Obviously, you need to campaign and talk about what the mindset is. But once you show that you can do this successfully, more people start to buy in, and it becomes the new process and culture.