The School Drop-off (A Safety Leadership Lesson)

In our neighborhood there are by my count 19 elementary and high schools within a mile of our front door! Wow—and I might actually be missing 1 or 2! Although we don’t live right in the Loop or the main downtown area of Chicago (no high-rise apartments near us) this is still a very densely populated urban residential and commercial area.  Most of these schools are smaller in size and are a combination of public, magnet, and private parochial schools with a very ethnically diverse set of students.

The first week following Labor Day means schools are back in session, which also means the automobile and pedestrian traffic during morning rush and again later in the afternoon suddenly amps up considerably.  Most of these schools don’t seem to have bus service so most parents are dropping their kids off at school using their cars. Given that this is a busy area anyways, the streets already crowded and fairly narrow with little parking except on-street, the addition of these extra cars makes peak hours pretty stressful.

The other morning, I was driving (at a crawl, sitting through numerous lights, etc.) down one of our main streets (Augusta) that’s also a feeder to one of the main freeways. There are 2 schools within 2 blocks of each other on this very street, not very far from the turn onto the freeway entrance ramp. It was a mess. Augusta is one lane each direction with street parking along both sides and a painted bike lane running between the parked cars and the traffic lane in both directions. I forgot to mention that Chicago is one of the busiest commuter bike cities in the country, so besides all the cars there were plenty of bikes making matters more complicated.

Right in front of the school a parent decided that instead of finding a parking space or heading down a quieter side street—they were going to pull over slightly to the right in the bike lane, still partially blocking regular traffic while also making it impossible for bikes to get through. On go the flashers, both driver and passenger doors open up, and out pops both the parent and what looked to be a 3rd grader.

The parent grabbed the 3rd grader by the hand and proceeded to walk right across both lanes of traffic without looking or hesitation and deposited the child right in front of school. The parent then calmly turned around and marched right back through traffic, got in the car completely ignoring the growing cacophony of car horns and yelling, and drove off as if nothing had happened. Thank goodness everyone had been stunned into stopping for this crazy display or this story wouldn’t have a very happy ending.

I was dumbfounded, shaking, concerned, and pretty damned angry. Not at the lost time in the traffic snarl, but dumbfounded and concerned for this child, and shaking and angry at this particular parent. What a terrible example, what amazingly poor leadership, and what remarkable disregard for everyone’s safety in that moment. I understand from experience that parenting is very stressful, etc., etc., but there was no excuse for this behavior.

Kids look to their parent to model behavior just as employees look to their company leadership to model their own behavior and get a clear picture of company values—especially when it comes to safety. There is no program, no slogan, no banner or incentive plan, that has anywhere near the impact on safety culture and performance than the behavior of company leadership. If the safety of each and every employee is truly important to company leadership, that will become obvious and will be modeled. Conversely if employee safety is simply a slogan or a program to be administered by others, or something “important” only in words until more pressing matters arise (productivity goals, revenue targets, etc.), this will also become obvious and will be modeled.

Safety has been a clear passion of mine for decades but crystalized for me when I was fortunate enough to transition from positions of sales leadership into 100% full P&L responsibilities in multi-site manufacturing. Along with great teammates at both the site level and corporate staff, we were able to make significant improvements in safety performance (along with other key financial and operational improvements) without much capital expense or any real changes in programs or incentives. We simply and clearly made safety our first and most important priority—and operated with that mindset each and every day. We communicated about safety constantly. We tracked key safety performance metrics religiously. We asked employees for safety feedback and suggestions and took swift actions to remedy unsafe conditions. And we unfailingly worked to make the workplace clean, organized, and safe for employees and visitors alike.

You may think this all sounds a bit “too good to be true” and wouldn’t work in “my” organization. But a recent Harvard Business Review article (How We Reduced Our Injury Rate by 90% at Campbell Soup Company by Douglas R. Conant, Sept. 5, 2018) makes it clear that this kind of transformation is possible elsewhere. The HBR article tells the story of David White, who in 10 years as the new Global VP of Supply Chain reduced lost-time injuries 90%. How was that possible?

The article states: “He was both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. He started his second week on the job by being crystal clear about what he was going to change, and he followed that up by demonstrating, time and again, that he cared about what happened to employees who were injured. Finally, he showed expert leadership in two ways: first he enforced the tough standards with zero-tolerance and then he built up a stable of supporters by implementing a system of incentives to reward the behavior and culture he was looking to build.”

Nothing too complicated there. No big programs or slogans. It was obvious that he cared deeply about the safety of the employees, and he had high expectations and tough standards. And the big incentives mentioned in the quote? A safety flag that the operations were awarded if they surpassed safety targets, and safety stats (both good and bad) of all locations prominently featured in quarterly Board of Directors meetings. That’s it. A 90% reduction in lost-time injuries in 10 years—and it’s really all about leadership.

That parent I mentioned in the beginning doesn’t need to spend any money and very little extra time to make a significant change in their own safety behavior and become a true model for safe behaviors and actions for their child. They simply need to act like a leader and make safety a priority for their family.

You too can make a huge change in your current operation, organization, community, etc., by communicating and intentionally exhibiting behavior that emphasizes safety as your main priority.  You won’t have to spend big bucks and you won’t have to muddy the water with new programs or slogans, but you will have to be authentic. And when you are authentic about your peoples’ safety, you get happier, more relaxed, safe, and engaged employees, who drive your business forward every day.  Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.

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