Monday, August 30, 2010

6 sigma vs. The Customer

In the quality world the term “six sigma” has become the phrase used to describe perfection. In statistical terms six sigma means a sustainable three parts per million error rate, or out of 1 million products manufactured day in and day out only three can be found to have any errors in them. That is 0.999997 accuracy. This is not an easy task in manufacturing, nor is it any easier in safety, i.e., one million effort hours (five work years) with only three hours of injury time out or slow down.

In a former career I did quality improvement assistance with a manufacturing company in Japan. On one of the long flights from the States to Tokyo I sat next to a man who worked with General Electric, a company famous in the quality world for their six sigma culture. The inevitable subject came up as I asked him to tell me about the real world of six sigma. I was shocked when he told me that he didn’t really believe in it!

His commentary went something like this:
“I am involved with accounting for nuclear reactor installations in Japan where some 90% of all electricity generation comes from nuclear power plants. Our contracts involve billions of dollars and that is why I fly to Japan every week. Three sigma, 0.997, is relatively easy and four sigma, 0.9997, is also fairly achievable. Once you get beyond four sigma, the level of detail necessary to get the next 9 is ever more excruciating. We do not do accounting to six sigma. It is possible, but we would have to add an army of additional paid accountants to achieve this level of sustainable excellence. Instead we control to the level of customer invisibility. That means we do not get at all near to the three thousand dollars out of a billion level of accuracy because the customer is unwilling to pay for what it takes to get there. We give them what they are willing to pay for and that is a function of their financial pain (risk) tolerance. It is a customer cost vs. benefit decision.”

So what does this have to with safety? I think it means you need to find out what your company leadership’s level of complacency is (pain/risk tolerance) and count on you won’t be able to get much better than that. If the answer is “level one” OSHA regs, count on about a double digit injury rate, 0.80 injury free (TCIR of 10-20, i.e., 10-20% medical incidents). To this regs approach, toss in the “level two” observation type of programs that are done well; JSA, Near Miss, Inspections and the like and you are up to about 0.90 injury free (TCIR 3-9) or so. To get better beyond “level two” performance you will have to add “level three” people who daily pursue safety accountability excellence and then the level four, five and six tools that ever (relentlessly) pursue the zero injury safety culture.

However, there is good news to this approach; you don’t have to add an “army of accountants.” The resources necessary for a zero injury safety culture are the people you already have on the payroll. Once their job description, training and performance measurement includes the accountabilities and level three through six actions necessary to achieve zero, your organization will continually improve toward the goal of “no injuries in my lifetime.”

The Doc

Monday, August 23, 2010

Six Opinions

I was traveling in a third world country with my extended family when my brother in law Ted slipped on a rock and fell. As we helped him up he had a number of nasty looking cuts and puncture wounds. Our guide got him out of the remote area as quickly as possible and into the available medical care. The bush doctor did the best he could and made suggestions for further care. The camp leadership had a different opinion and thought infection had already taken place. This lead to a long drive to a larger town for another evaluation and another very different opinion at the only clinic open on Sunday. Of course we each had our opinions. My sister’s comment went something like “We got six different opinions that ranged all over the map, none of which came from anyone who had a medical degree.” In the end Ted did just fine, but there were some times of real, appropriate concern.

During this same trip I came down with dysentery and received the next series of 6 opinions from various “experts.” My favorite was a torching I got from the camp leadership about not following the email they supposedly sent out telling us to take yeast tablets and drink lots of liquids. My somewhat sarcastic response about having some serious beer therapy was not even appreciated. I dutifully took the homeopathic pills she offered, and had a few beers just to make sure. In the end (pardon the obvious pun) the only thing that worked was some serious antibiotic pills that my other sister carried with her. The only one of the five of us that did not suffer from this frequent travel unpleasantly was Ted, who was on the same medication (he got from the first bush “doctor”) to fight infection for his wounds.

Have you ever been stuck and needing help, but instead got all kinds of opinions that were hard to sort out or were even conflicting? It is a part of the world we live in, no matter where we live. What to do in this circumstance? Normally, I try to research the various options, and with this available data I then opt for the potential solution with the most ‘horsepower.’ No use sneaking up on a problem, pull out the big guns and cut down the issues as quickly and thoroughly as possible. No “inch off the snake’s tail.” Go for the head! And my long flight home after antibiotics was a whole lot better than the week of “trotting” off into the bush after the latest local remedy failure.

The Doc

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Gulf Cleanup

Much of our news in recent months is about the more than 2.5 million gallons of oil that have been gushing daily into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deep Horizon Oil Rig spill began in April of this year. Only just recently has the oil flow been stopped. It has taken an excruciating length of time even though some of the brightest scientists in the business, backed by a seemingly unlimited expense account, have been giving it their best shot.

Volunteers and emergency responders have come from far and wide to the Gulf of Mexico, providing whatever assistance they can with the on-going clean-up effort. Federal, state and local government entities are present in all stages of this disaster. Multi-billion dollar payouts from a number of sources are promised to those who have lost income or loved ones.OSHA stepped in to affirm that all of these people must be trained prior to getting involved in any cleanup work. Of course, there is a major time crunch associated with this training—the faster workers can be trained, the sooner they can help.

After viewing detailed reports about circumstances leading up to the spill many have come to the conclusion that BP chose profit over safety. As a result they are suffering and causing countless others to suffer along with them. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated event. There have been reports of BP and other large corporations ignoring safety regulations in favor of increased productivity for decades, as seen by the Massey Mining disaster in March of this year.

A number of news reports about circumstances leading up to the spill have come to the conclusion that private contractors chose profit over safety. As a result they are suffering and causing countless others to suffer along with them. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated event. There have been reports of other organizations ignoring safety regulations in favor of increased productivity or schedule achievement for decades, as seen by Bhopal, the Challenger disaster and the Massey Mining disaster in March of this year . Yes, these disastrous errors in judgment and execution occur in government run organizations as well as in private enterprise.

Hopefully we will learn many lessons from these events. Most importantly, we should understand that cutting corners in safety compliance issues does not pay off in the long run. In the end, it is only a matter of time before the "solutions" birthed by expediency break down and we are forced to deal with the larger ramifications of choosing to ignore the difficult issues. Once again we see how painful it is to our nation and local populations when they experience the unfortunate true costs of being unsafe.

A healthy safety culture doesn’t hide problems in the background, but gathers its workers and engages them to create solutions to the daily problems that exist wherever we work. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you see something that is unsafe. Open communication is a vital key to a thriving, zero incident safety culture.

Image 1: HowStuffWorks Image 2: SolidPrinciples

Monday, August 16, 2010


A while back our extended family took an exciting Safari Camp vacation in Sub Sahara Africa. Our Maasai guide began looking for the game we wanted to view by searching for the animal’s "marfi" (this is the Swahili word for dung). He first found the old stuff and then followed it to the fresh poop. From there tracking began in earnest. Once he found the effect (marfi) his focus transferred to the cause (the animal).

Well of course I was thinking of personal safety as we tracked down a herd of 120 or so elephants who laid down quite a path of marfi. Yet there was a deeper message in the piles of poop. How often does the leadership efforts of our safety cultures focus on the old poop (injuries) or even the new poop, (the effects of a poor safety culture) and not on the causes of the marfi? We analyze the marfi. We discuss the marfi. We squabble over the marfi. And we often never get to the weak safety culture causes of the marfi. Are we ignoring the causes of “elephant in the room” as we dig ever deeper into the piles of poop left by it?

Yes, pay attention to the old marfi and the new marfi. They are indicators of the true causes of a weakness in your safety culture. But get out of digging in the poop and concentrate on eradicating the elephants that are tracking through the room of your safety culture and leaving their stinking piles that indicate the weaknesses you really need to work on.

The Doc


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Ending Doom

Our global work environment has helped to create an even greater gap between those doing the work in the field and those running the organization.  The policy and procedure (P&P) manual just does not address the reality of the work-a-day world on a drilling platform thousands of miles away from the home.  Nor are the regulations (regs) any real indicator of what can go wrong.  Add to this the multi-diversities of mixed country, mixed culture workforces that are reality at the job site, and it becomes even clearer that P&Ps and regs are not adequate safeguards for the people, the environment, or the capital investments in our global work world. 

The P&Ps and regs are necessary foundational principles that provide important guidance.  However, they do not address the complex underlying workplace cultural issues that occur 24/7 in an ever more dangerous, potentially disastrous work world that did not exist 40 years ago when the regs approach birthed the P&Ps.  The challenging issue facing us is dealing with safety and environment cultures in an extremely disconnected workforce.

My experience in working with petrochemical and drilling industry organizations is that the people absolutely do care.  They simply do not know what the underlying culture issues are, nor do they know how to fix the issues once they are presented with a good diagnosis.  The culture of regs and P&Ps has not prepared them well for their ever more complex and challenging workplace reality.  There is good news in this scenario: The people and organizations that make up the petrochemical work world are typically excellent problem solvers once they have a good picture of reality and some effective tools to work with. 

In my experience a solution that has worked well is conducting a two phase safety/environmental culture assessment 
  • Phase one is a quantitative perception survey that points out the cultural reality strengths and weaknesses in management, front line supervision and hourly workforces  
  • Phase two is the performance of qualitative interviews that engage people from each of the levels of the organization in a dialogue that fleshes out the issues noted in the quantitative perception survey. 
  • Obviously this leads to the next step, which is an interactive discussion with leaders from all three organization levels.  From this step comes a strategic and tactical plan to address and resolve the safety/environmental culture  shortfalls that are true indicators of potential disasters

·        The second part of the solution is training volunteer members from all levels of the organization  in developing solutions to indicated weak areas.  The training is all about engaging members of the workforce in solving the culture issues that the regs and P&Ps do not address.  The process here is Continuous Improvement teams that engage all levels of the organization in a relentless pursuit of a zero incident workplace. 

This approach has been proven to work time and again in the global zero error quality cultures that have given us incredible gains in product quality, reliability and sustainability over the last 40 years.  This approach works in going beyond the regs and P&Ps to continually focus on the elimination of real and potential physical and cultural  hazards that can lead to the disasters we must avoid in our current and future global, extremely diverse work world.        

  The Doc

Image Credits: SunSentinel 

Monday, August 9, 2010

What is Statistical Validation?

I used to teach SPC (Statistical Process Controls). I don’t think I ever did it very well, and one of the troubles was that it seemed that most of the students locked up and their eyes glassed over at the first mention of the “S word.” Try as we may, our group just could never get the detailed math to be successfully absorbed by the hourly and salaried employees of our manufacturing organization. Transferring the knowledge of the math of standard deviations, chi squared distributions, and curve skewness was a lost cause to the overwhelming majority of our 8th grade education level hourly employees, and not a lot better with our college level professionals.

That led us to develop and train a different kind of SPC, Simple Process Controls. Our tools became non mathematical constructs like Pareto Charts, Process Maps, Cause and Effect Diagrams and Kaizen teams. In other words a simple, practical, non mathematical approach that helped our teams to solve well over 90% of the day-to-day problems in an industrial organization. This approach was incredibly successful world wide. We weren’t worried about statistical validation of the data base; rather it was a focus on permanently fixing what was in front of our eyes.

Yet there were certain applications that did require statistical rigor. And what does that mean without using the math language of statisticians? It means that there is a level of certainty that what is done will lead to a desired result. In the statistics world they call this a correlation factor. If you follow a certain detailed process you will likely get a high probability of achieving the desired result.

One of my favorite examples comes from the late safety culture giant Dr. Dan Petersen. I can still hear him say something like “Why do you pay attention to setting goals based on injury rates, something you do not want to have happen? The numbers are statistically invalid and it is just plain illogical and ridiculous to count things you don’t want to occur!” Statistically invalid? Yes, we are dealing at the supervisory level where there aren’t enough hours in a crew to do other than cause a supervisor to fail if they have even one injury in a multiple year time frame. Their total Case Rate is based on 100 effort years and one injury is impossible to overcome. It’s not much better at the facility level.

Is there such a thing as a statistically valid measure of safety performance? Dr. Dan and I agreed, count the things you want to occur, set goals for them and reward excellence in performance. This is not based on injury rates. The measure is the accomplishment of well thought out safety accountability actions that must be repeated correctly innumerable times. If something goes wrong, an incident or a near miss, form a team, fix the root causes and improve the safety accountabilities that will forever eliminate the possibility of this error recurring.

Stop counting what you don’t want to occur and reward what you do want. When your safety culture has this kind of focus the statistics will take care of themselves.

The Doc

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Dung Beetle

While working with a company in Africa I walked around the compound one evening and noticed a curious insect that really caught my eye- the Dung Beetle. 

The local people told me their story about how the male and female Dung Beetles form a pile of manure into about a one-inch diameter ball. The female then holds tightly onto the ball while the male rolls it round and round all over the terrain until they find a satisfactory hole for their dung ball.
Home Sweet Home.

Later on, their children live off the parents’ dung ball until they mature and start their own meaningless cycle of rolling their own balls of dung around the planet. On long trips like this I often struggle with going to sleep. This time around my sleepless nights were likely compounded by contemplating ‘the meaning of life’ after observing this dung ball object lesson.

How many times do we go about life in the same way, day-in and day-out, with no more affect than a Dung Beetle in their meaningless, endless cycle of rolling a pile of dung around? In our jobs are we stuck doing the same-ol, same-ol? Is our off the job life anymore exciting or fulfilling than rolling a pile of dung around our neighborhood environs? So then, what is there about our job that we can do to make a real, lasting difference to the safety, health and welfare of our organization? In the family life what can I do to get out of the rut and add meaning to the few short years we are able to enjoy (or contrarily endure) in the life we are given?

The sleepless nights began to take on a different light as I used them to contemplate ‘the meaning of life’ and then do something about it. Both my work life and family life have improved. Yet there is a cost for this change- my complacency has all but disappeared. Along with its exit comes some increase in stress as a result of being more engaged in family and work. No more time on the sidelines. Can you make such a conscious change in all that you do? More activity, less free time and no longer living a life that is of no more value than a Dung Beetle.

What are your piles of dung at work that need to be dumped and exchanged for a focus on actively engaging in building a zero incident safety culture? Where are those family dung piles that need to be swept out the door permanently?

Is it time for you to make a similar career and life change?

The Doc

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