Risk is pervasive in today’s organizations. Managers who recognize this fact also acknowledge that they can take positive steps to avoid errors and accidents. However, these steps are hard work. Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s “Seven Rules of Success” can be one guide. Known as the Father of the Nuclear Navy, Rickover served 64 years in the United States Navy. He was a safety fanatic who took a “womb-to-tomb” approach to management, saying:
“I am responsible for the ship throughout its life — from the very beginning to the very end.”
These rules, especially in light of the past several years, still hold today. Any organization that follows Rickover’s rules will surely improve its record.
1. Practice continuous improvement.
Rise above the minimum standard. Measure your results and then strive to improve them. Never accept the status quo. Even a slight improvement, if measured, can be a reason to cheer. Continuous improvement is “the great divide between the public and private sector. The private sector has learned that you are out of business if you are not continually improving your products and services. Sadly, too many government agencies are locked into the status quo – ‘We have always done it this way.’ Our public and our personnel deserve better than minimum standards.”
2. Hire smart people.
In a 1973 speech, Rickover said:
“Theories of management don’t much matter. Endeavors succeed or fail because of the people involved. Only by attracting the best people will you accomplish great deeds.”
People running complex systems must be highly competent. That sounds like a no-brainer, right? Yet how many managers fail to dismiss employees during their probationary period or fail to retrain when problems continue to arise, thinking, “Maybe they’ll improve”? They usually don’t. “If you hire idiots or thugs, they will always be idiots or thugs. They will not get better over time.” If employees cannot do the job and do it safely, replace them.
3. Establish quality supervision.
“Show me a tragedy, and I will show you a “proximate cause of x.” Yet, the real problem is either a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor or, alternatively, a supervisor who tried to act like a supervisor and was not supported by management.
4. Respect the dangers you face.
Many people lack respect for risk or fail to understand its dangers. They overestimate their chances from things that pose a slight threat and underestimate the risks that matter. While we are biologically wired to respond to hazards, we aren’t too skilled at analyzing trouble before it happens. Managers and supervisors – leaders – must educate workers about the risks they face in the workplace and develop response plans. Tragedies don’t just pop up out of the blue – they involve identifiable risks and thus manageable risks.”
5. Train, train, and train.
The adage about training applies here. Every day has to be a training day and focus on the events identified in Rule 4, risk assessment. Managers cannot overemphasize this as our employee pool ages, and physical and cognitive abilities decline. Yet why are training funds one of the first cuts under the budget ax? Go through every job description to determine the risks and then train for those risks. Never expect an employee who performs a task infrequently to do so safely. What if you train the employee and they leave? What if you don’t teach them and they stay? Think about it.
6. Audit, control, and inspect.
Auditing is not micromanagement. Rules without enforcement are useless, as are safety systems without implementation. You need a robust audit process to assure what you say you are doing is actually being done. Too many [operational] audits are ‘lip-service.
Let me assure you that the audit the plaintiff lawyers will perform after a tragedy will not be ‘lip service.’ They will peel back the onion layers to show a jury that everyone knew what was wrong, yet no one did anything about it.” For example, the most advanced fall protection system will not work if workers refuse to wear it. Admiral Rickover refused to delegate the audit process, and because of this and his obsession with safety, the Navy credits him with its record of zero nuclear accidents. If in doubt, assume the worst, as Rickover did whenever he could not verify that a submarine’s construction met the standards. When that happened, he insisted on a complete teardown.
7. An organization must learn from past mistakes.
Instead, many organizations keep repeating the same mistakes. There are no new ways to get in trouble, only new ways to stay out of trouble. A basic rule is ‘there’s always a better way,’ and organizations should learn from errors to avoid repeating them.
Predictable is preventable. If it’s identifiable, it is manageable.
Never be afraid to dissect mistakes, even if it temporarily spotlights the employees involved. In my previous agricultural career, I have seen owners and managers silence discussions about errors to avoid embarrassing employees, even mistakes that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Allow the employees involved to determine a better path and present the situation to prevent mishaps. Additionally, we must continue to study tragedies in similar organizations. The errors [other leaders in] organizations make can be the errors your organization will make in the future…or not.