well don’t just sit there

One of the greatest humorists, social commentators and just an all around good old-fashioned, common sense philosopher was also a vaudeville performer and an Oklahoma cowboy named Will Rogers.

Don't just sit there!

Don’t just sit there!

He once said that, “Even if you’re right on track – you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

Last week, a group of trucking stakeholders including Jetco Delivery, Great West Casualty Company, the Port of Houston Authority and the Texas Trucking Association hosted the first of its kind Houston Transportation Safety Day.

The gathering was attended by friends within the trucking, port, shipping and law enforcement communities – all of whom came together to promote and share experiences within their own cultures of safety.

As such, we had the privilege of having one of the members of the National Transportation Safety Board fly-in from Washington DC to join us for a keynote presentation.  The Honorable Robert Sumwalt shared a timely message of which one observation in particular stuck out for me.

Simply put, good safety translates to good business – but Sumwalt shared a personal experience, which I could tell struck home with this captive audience.

He talked about the importance of creating and rewarding a culture of safety.  To describe that, he shared a story of an investigation the NTSB had recently completed in which it found a company at fault for reasons you might not guess.

A longtime safety executive who through NTSB’s research had been determined to be very well trained, well informed and who also had the safety professionals who reported to him very well prepared.  He had simply been in charge when a mishap occurred with dire consequences.

Robert Sumwalt, a board member with the National Transportation and Safety Board, speaks at a press conference after a UPS cargo plane crashed at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala. on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. The jet crashed into a field near the Birmingham airport Wednesday, killing two pilots. (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

Robert Sumwalt speaks at a press conference after a cargo plane crashed at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (Mark Almond/malmond@al.com)

When interviewing the top brass of the company, NTSB discovered they had fired him.   They were hoping to demonstrate to NTSB that they had solved the problem, that there were consequences at this company for such failures.

Quite to their surprise, NTSB instead admonished them for harboring an environment where employees are not encouraged by their own best practices.  Not all errors should be punished.  The NTSB investigation found that the company had taken all the precautions, all the necessary steps to prevent the accident – it was just that, an accident.

The message here was simply to treat employees fairly.  In doing so, you encourage and reward your people for bringing information to you.  By firing a consummate professional who oversaw an unintentional error, they unwittingly demonstrated that they are more than willing to punish regardless of intent.  That it would be wiser to keep information from them.

It is recklessness and deliberate risks that warrant the greatest punishment.  Instead, the company had fired its most valuable asset to its own future safety fitness, as NTSB saw it.  And thus the true purpose of any post-accident investigation, if it can be determined – is where is the fault?   What can be done for this company’s future – what can be learned to prevent something like this from happening again?

The most successful company executives know that safety cannot just be a priority – it has to be a core value.  As an example, priorities change around my office on a daily basis, and frankly they had better lest we not meet our stated goals.  However, it is core values that serve as our steadiest guides.complacency

We not only have to make safety a core value, we have to display a chronic unease so that it keeps us on our toes.  You can go from complacency to catastrophe in moments.  How do you avoid this?  It’s simple – don’t get complacent!

Leadership is about influence and we should be asking ourselves daily how we use that influence to make our surroundings safer, for trucking how that translates to our drivers and equipment.  It takes an obsession with safety and leadership to avoid the normalization of deviance, where shortcuts can become a normal practice.  Or worse yet, we lull ourselves to sleep with selective compliance, as Will Rogers so eloquently put.

We must commit to demonstrating safety in all that we do – our safety behaviors are patterned to meet our demonstrated priorities, not just our stated ones.  Make certain our practices follow our policies.

TXTA Intermodal Committee Chairman, Jetco President and Houston Transportation Safety Day organizer, Brian Fielkow, shared a favorite quote by legendary coach Vince Lombardi in his closing remarks last week at the Safety Day that bears repeating.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection – we will catch excellence.”

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