Can the safety profession learn anything from a Navy Captain? Ahoy Mateys! You bet! In his book It's Your Ship, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff tells his story of turning around a low productivity, low energy, absent of passion and enthusiasm, just showing up to collect a paycheck ship to "the hottest go-to ship in the Navy". It's not a story about safety management and he did not specifically target injury reduction, however a byproduct of his turnaround efforts was a dramatic reduction in workers compensation claims and injury rates.
It's Your Ship is a story of a Naval officer and his command of USS Benfold, a ship with 310 sailors and every cutting edge system available, and also very low productivity and high turnover (low enlistment in Navy terms). It’s a story of how basic leadership principles and employee engagement can improve not only productivity, but reduce injury rates.
Here is a summary of how he did it and how it applies to the safety profession.
1. VISION, MISSION, COMMON PURPOSE
Create a vision and a belief in the vision and mission. According to Captain Abrashoff “The whole secret of leading a ship or managing a company is to articulate a common goal that inspires a diverse group of people to work hard together.”
He created a common purpose, “Be the best damn ship in the Navy.” He didn’t step on the ship with that vision. Reading a bit between the lines, his vision emerged over time. Once the vision became clear, he turned it into a common purpose. How? By never missing an opportunity to share, define and create enthusiasm around the vision. “Give them a compelling vision of their work, a good reason to believe it is important and make them believe they can do anything”.
Too often we conjure up a vision while sitting in a conference room at an off-site meeting, however the most impactful visions tend to emerge and evolve over time from numerous discussions with all levels of the organization and after some serious soul searching to determine what is truly important. Simply putting up posters that announce “ZERO Injuries” or “No One Gets Hurt Today” are admirable, but unless we turn them into a common purpose they lose their value and very quickly become artifacts of our safety program.
2. EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
He interviewed five sailors a day, one at a time to establish a personal relationship with each crew member. He linked goals, so that they would see his vision of improving Benfold as an opportunity for them to apply their talents and give their jobs a real purpose, a “common purpose.” From those conversations, he compiled a list of mission critical tasks. Only doing the tasks that were important and cutting back or dispensing with unimportant tasks.
He listened “aggressively” to every crew member to understand their needs, their issues, and to show them he cared. He wrote letters to their family. He knocked down barriers, helped them achieve and reach their goals both personal and professional. He treated every conversation as the most important thing at that moment.
At one point in my career I did investigations of high hazard events. I learned that I didn’t need to solve the problem myself. I only needed to engage the employees who were familiar with the operation or task. They always had the answer and were more than happy to share. When we make them feel like part of the solution rather than part of the problem they will respond in a positive manner and often exceed minimum standards without being directed. They will freely give that 10% of discretionary effort that is usually held back.
In addition, he used positive, personal reinforcement. According to Captain Abrashoff, “The more I thanked them for their hard work, the harder they worked. Coldness congeals, warmth heals. Little things make a big difference.”
Recognition is a high impact, low cost tool that is too often underutilized. It can’t be over used or worn out and he proved it by engaging his employee group, including new sailors, every step of the way. It’s the difference between mediocre leaders who don’t take the time to know their people and great leaders.
Another tool that can’t be over used is communication. Routine and consistent communication using different avenues and different people. Captain Abrashoff became known as, “Megaphone Mike” because he consistently and routinely communicated purpose and meaning. They knew what was important to him and acted accordingly. It was crystal clear because he communicated on a routine basis.
I have a rule, tell them seven times, seven different ways and they’ll get it. In other words, send the same message through email, hand written notes, bulletin boards, text messages, electronic bulletin boards, training, internal web sites, etc. and it will eventually sink in. Do we want 100% compliance with our Personal Protective Equipment requirements. Of course, but how often are we sending that message and how many different methods and people are we using to send that message?
4. SET EXPECTATIONS
He set high expectations and challenged the crew beyond its reach. He expected the best from his crew and got it. He consistently provided feedback at regular intervals throughout the year and formally on a quarterly basis, but also as part of the daily routine to keep people on task and heading towards the common purpose.
The key to a successful evaluation is whether or not your people are surprised the day you give them their grades. If they are surprised, then clearly you have not done a good job of setting their expectations and providing feedback throughout the entire year.
What expectations do you set? Zero injuries? Is zero even achievable? If you don’t believe it is, you certainly will not have a chance at achieving it and more important your employees will know.
To meet his lofty expectation, he went beyond compliance. He needed to create an environment that produced ideas and he understood that rigidity gets in the way of creativity. He implemented the AAR, After Action Review after all major decisions, events and incidents to encourage open discussion of each success and failure.
From a safety perspective, do we view injuries or accidents as an opportunity to learn through open discussion? Or do we simply ask, “Were we in compliance with regulations?” Do we look for fault or look for lessons learned? The most successful organizations are also learning organizations. Injuries and in particular near-miss events are seen as a break down in a process and an opportunity to improve.
Without specifically targeting injury reduction, there was a corresponding, dramatic drop in workmen’s comp cases and safety-related mishaps almost disappeared (from 32 to only 2). When people feel they own an organization, they want to do things right the first time, and they don’t have accidents by taking shortcuts for the sake of expedience. Captain Abrashoff genuinely cared about his crew and it showed. It showed in increased productivity and reduced injury rates.
The book was an easy read and chocked full of fundamental leadership principles told in a pretty cool story. No highfalutin, difficult to understand management theories here. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in turnaround strategies, the role of leadership and the importance of employee engagement in a turnaround effort.
As Captain Abrashoff noted, “It’s funny how often the problem is leadership. When you don’t get the results we want, look inward.” And that’s a lesson we all need to learn.