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My father worked for the same company for 42 years before retiring on his 65th birthday. He provided wise counsel to me from adolescence through adulthood, although I was never comfortable with his blind loyalty to his employer. Listening to him, you would have thought that the company never made a mistake and always treated their employees with the utmost respect and compassion. Sadly, he learned late in his career that the organization he idolized was not what he had thought. The company eventually began making decisions driven by ego, narcissism, material gain, wealth accumulation, profit, and corporate greed. Thinking about this, I am reminded of something that I heard early in my career; “Don’t fall in love with a company because a company won’t love you back!”

With the increasing focus on short-term financial results over the past several decades, we have witnessed countless employers lose the trust of their employees by making decisions that benefited stakeholders and/or executives at the expense of their employees. A consequence of this perceived betrayal has been the forfeiture of employer/employee trust and subsequent loyalty. Some who were put on a pedestal as titans of business and industry have fallen back to earth, often leaving their employees, and in some cases, their companies in a weakened and sometimes fatal position.

In this post-modern era that began in the waning years of the 20th century and has now come to fruition and consumed American culture, the focus is on “self” at the exclusion of pretty much everything else. Evidence of such a radical change in our culture can be found imbedded in most aspects of society today. Largely gone is the effect of the Age of Enlightenment and its reliance on logic and reason.

Objective truth has been supplanted with subjective truth with the implication that there can been disparate truths. The advent of social media has catalyzed this change and provided a global forum where perceived grievances can be pronounced to the world and where little of what is said is scrutinized or questioned. Many honest and ethical people are unsure how to respond in such a corrosive and destructive environment. How are those in leadership positions supposed to “lead” in a world gone amuck in individualism?

The answer is this: By being the leader you should always have been a servant leader. Having been “blessed” (although some might argue otherwise) with leadership responsibility for thousands during my career, I can share what worked unfailingly for me. I viewed my primary responsibility to be the care and nurture of those I served. If they were successful, I earnestly believed that I would be successful, the organization would be successful, the plant would be successful, and the business would be successful. This approach worked without fail and helped create a positive, constructive, productive, and empowered work environment.

To be a successful leader in the postmodern era is to be a servant leader, one who places the needs of others above himself/herself. First and foremost is to provide a safe and secure work environment. We dare not assume that everyone knows how to safely execute his/her job. In the process industry, far too much is at stake to leave safety to chance. The old adage that “accidents happened” should never have been accepted and has no place in a 21st-century workplace.

Approach safety similarly to other skills assessments. Begin by defining what the workers need to know to do their job safely. Do not fall into the trap of believing that an annual review of safety policies is sufficient, it is not. To be effective, workers must be taught about the practical application of the policy and any related procedures. It is essential that time be allotted during training for the workers to ask questions and provide feedback on the policy and procedures. Nobody is more directly affected than those who work on the front lines; thus, their input should carry far more weight than a bureaucrat working in an office environment who translates statutes into company policy and procedures.

Also, consider including non-work-related safety training. Off-the-job injuries prevent the worker from being able to execute his/her job responsibilities. As an example, if boating is a favorite pastime in your area, consider having an expert talk about boating safety. And before you claim that the company and/or the government provides benefits even if the employee is unable to work… isn’t it far better to avoid the injury altogether?

Maintenance workers chose their respective vocation because they like the work and derive personal satisfaction from seeing the fruits of their labor. Sitting at home convalescing provides no satisfaction to the worker. To the contrary, it creates a sense of helplessness that can lead to depression. Good mental health is every bit as critical as good physical health.

Being a servant leader means not merely repeating the corporate mantra that employees/workers are our most valuable assets, it means taking a personal interest in every individual, understanding their strengths and recognizing their weaknesses. Regrettably, far too many people are in positions that play to their weaknesses; thus, their probability of success is greatly diminished. This situation was predictable as selection and promotion criteria has become less objective (i.e., based on qualifications) and more subjective (i.e., based on factors unrelated to skills and demonstrated capabilities).

Once employees’ strengths and weaknesses are identified, primarily by the individual worker himself/herself, a personal development plan can be created that leverages their skills and abilities and addresses any shortcomings. Be realistic, if they lack the requisite abilities to be successful in their current assignment, help guide them toward a role where they can be successful. Be open and honest, a round peg will never fit into a square hole! But these are the exceptions, the overwhelming majority of workers can be successful in their current assignment given the essential training and support needed to ensure their success. There is no better way to illustrate this concept than a case study.

I was recruited into a leadership role in a process industry plant that was underperforming. In fact, all of my assignments have been in places where the organization was underperforming. In this particular instance, the plant was experiencing excessive weld failures in a high pressure, high temperature application that not only detrimentally affected production, but exposed workers and the surrounding community to potential hazards. In a moment of exasperation, I asked the obvious; “Haven’t our mechanics been trained to weld pipe?” Imagine my shock and dismay when the answer was a resounding “no.”

This 20-year-old process plant had been hiring mechanics without the requisite welding skills since it was built. This was a crisis with potentially life and death consequences that needed to be addressed immediately. First, we sought input from the mechanics and their supervisors to clearly define welding requirements. Second, we met with a recognized trade school and jointly developed a customized training program to meet our specific needs.

The maintenance workforce was represented by organized labor so we next met with the local union president and his leadership team to garner their insights and support. We offered to provide the training during normal working hours, to provide transportation to/from the training facility, to provide all necessary tools and materials, and provide lunch each day. The response was unanimous support with one caveat, make the training voluntary.

I agreed to grandfather in the current workforce with the qualification that it would ultimately be required that mechanics pass the welding exam before they would be authorized to weld. The class was several weeks in duration; we could only afford to have four mechanics participate at a time due to the on-going labor requirements of the plant. Interestingly, the quality of welds began to improve immediately even though nobody had yet been fully trained. When I asked the workers how to explain this phenomenon, they said they now recognized the critical importance of their welding that had previously been ignored. So, they were taking their time to do the best they could to make a quality weld. Training continued for months and ultimately all of the mechanics elected to be trained and certified and weld failures were effectively eliminated.

Such investment in training and capabilities should not be limited to skilled craft personnel, it should apply to all employees. For example, maintenance planners are often selected based on their craft skills and capabilities with little to no consideration given to their planning skills. Maintenance planning is an art with many intricate steps. Left to their own devices, planners will do whatever they believe needs to be done. All-too-often, this results in reactive behavior where little work is truly planned and the planner effectively becomes a glorified expeditor. The point being, every person involved in maintenance and reliability should be thoroughly trained in their respective field.

Interestingly, there is a counter argument to training. I have heard it more than once and it goes like this: “If we train them then they will leave and go somewhere else where they can make more money with their newfound skills.” Friends, shame on you if you do not recognize the value of your skilled workers and pay them a competitive wage. I personally know of only one case where we lost an employee after we invested in his training. I knew the worker personally, before he left, he came to see me to explain why he was leaving. He had an hour long commute each way that took valuable time away from his family. With his newfound skills, he was able to secure a job close to home that gave him several hours a week of more quality time with his loved ones. While I hated to see him go, I was genuinely happy for him. We stayed in touch for a while after he left, evidence of the value we each placed on our relationship.

The successful leader also takes a personal interest in his/her employees. This means that the leader must leave the comfort of his/her office and get out in the field where the actual work takes place. Active participation in work group safety meetings is a good way to demonstrate your investment in the workers and it provides a venue where workers can provide direct feedback to those in charge. Another effective means to demonstrate a personal interest is to institute a routine safety inspection program that includes designated trained workers as well as leaders serving as safety inspectors. These programs can be structured around specific safety policies with individual assignments for each policy.

For example, slips, trips and falls has always been an area ripe with hazards. So have one or two of the inspection team thoroughly trained in these policies who then look not just for any policy infractions, but identify any related safety issues not specifically spelled out in a policy or procedure. I lost a beloved family member many years ago in an industrial accident because workers had failed to secure grating on an elevated platform. My 20-something-year-old family member fell to his death when the grating slid off the support and fell hundreds of feet to the ground. Such incidents have a profound effect on your perspective and come at the cost of deep personal loss and grief. But we don’t have to be victims, accidents and injuries are preventable. If you do not believe that, then you will not take your safety responsibilities with the level of commitment they demand.

In closing, I have a couple of recommendations that I hope you will consider. Be open and honest with your workers. If you cannot share information due to legal or other compulsory barriers, then tell them that but don’t use it as an excuse. Workers want to know the bad news as well as the good. Left to their own devices, humans are prone to thinking the worst so whatever you say is not likely going to be as bad as what they are already thinking. And finally, celebrate success.

A wise man once said; “Nothing breeds success like success!” Have lunch provided to thank the workers for doing a good job and shake their hands… all of them, to demonstrate the authenticity of your appreciation. Other practical ways to show appreciation for a job well done is through gifts such as caps, t-shirts, hand tools, etc. And better yet if the gift reinforces the safety message like ear muffs, leather gloves, safety glasses, etc. Always remember: Workers are the most valuable assets any company has. Treat them accordingly.TRR

Al Poling is retired after having spent 40 years in maintenance and reliability in the process industry. He is a former Technical Director for the Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professions (SMRP) as well as a former project manager
for Solomon Associates’ International Study of Plant Reliability and Maintenance Effectiveness (RAM Study). He has worked with clients and spoken at conferences around the globe and written numerous articles on reliability, maintenance, and related topics.

Tags: reliability, availability, maintenance, RAM, leadership, servant leaders, industrial safety, workforce issues