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Operational Blind Spots

Sideview Mirror

I recently had a very unsettling experience while I was driving in Pittsburgh. I started to change lanes on the parkway, only to suddenly hear a series of frantic horn blasts. I immediately jerked my car back over into my original lane and took a few deep breaths. With my heart pounding and waves of adrenaline running through my body, I realized I came within about an inch of hitting another driver, and perhaps another…a potentially catastrophic accident, all within a series of seconds.

I gathered my composure, and with a renewed focus on my commute, I assessed how I could have let this happen. I went through my internal checklist: I checked my rearview mirror, I checked my side mirror, and I used my turn signal. How did I miss this?

So, what happened? I failed to recognize my blind spots. When incidents like this occur, we have only a split second to assess and adjust. That is why some close-calls result in a horn blow (or a few) and frazzled nerves, while others have catastrophic outcomes.

For those of us working in asset-intensive industries like utilities, oil and gas, and industrial operations, we constantly grapple with the impacts of our operational blind spots. Just like a driver on a busy highway, one merge away from a car crash, CEOs and leaders of asset-intensive organizations are only one phone call away from a potentially horrible scenario— detailing a dangerous incident that has occurred on their watch.

Workplace incident statistics are unsettling. In the U.S.:

  • A worker injury occurs on the job every 7 seconds
  • There are approximately 14 work-related deaths every day
  • The total cost of work injuries in 2017 was $161.5 billion

These incidents are terrible for individuals and their families, communities, as well as for the businesses affected. In addition to the physical harm, organizations often face expensive litigation and damaged reputations, financial losses, and the loss of trust among employees, customers, and stakeholders. And often, CEOs become the face of these unfortunate events.

Examples of operational blind spots often include:

  • External resources, such as contractors and suppliers
  • Neighboring businesses that might connect to your system
  • Poor and infrequent communication
  • Operational silos (operations, maintenance, planning, and scheduling, etc.)
  • Organizational design and reporting structure issues (evolved or designed)
  • Ineffective hand-offs from process to process and person to person
  • Lack of integration between programs and frameworks
  • Stakeholders with competing agendas
  • KPIs that do not drive desired behavior

As a leader, how you address, prevent, and plan for your organizational blind spots can be the difference between being seen as a hero or a villain.

Now, imagine your business is transforming into a world-class enterprise. One that:

  • Supports and encourages an engaged workforce that actively identifies operational blind spots and eliminates potentially costly and harmful processes and behaviors
  • Consistently and systematically reduces non-operating costs and improves operating performance
  • Actively eliminates the risks of lost-time injuries and potential harm for employees and stakeholders

For those who aspire to build a world-class safety and risk culture, systems thinking is a game-changer. System thinking involves moving from observing events or data in isolation, to identifying patterns of behavior over time and understanding the underlying structures that drive those events and trends.

Systems thinking helps organizations analyze the relationships and interdependencies of their operations within the context of a greater and complex system. Examining the interactions of the parts of a system allows us to see larger patterns. By identifying these patterns, we start to understand how the system works. Instead of reacting to problems that seem isolated, a systems approach will ask about the relationships to additional activities within that system, identify patterns, and use that information to search for the root cause.

An organization’s equipment, engineering, supply chains, maintenance functions, and regulatory requirements are just a few of the issues that contribute to this complexity. These organizations are made up of very intricate systems of physical assets, as well as the processes and procedures to control them. It is these complex and interconnected systems that contribute to operational blind spots.

Asset-intensive industries require multiple levels of internal controls to mitigate potential risk factors. These industries are subject to various federal, state, and local compliance requirements, as well as corporate policies. To address these requirements, organizations must develop programs to comply with these complex requirements, such as:

These programs represent a complex system of policies, procedures, and guidelines that are designed to ensure a company’s internal control and guide organizational behaviors. They allow an organization to create processes around a common set of standards that can be inspected and audited.

From here, it’s essential to understand whether these programs support each other, or if they unknowingly work against each other. Are the process steps within the programs optimized for peak performance? And, if not, why not?

When and if a crisis or incident occurs, systems thinking allows you to identify and address your blind spots can help you in understanding and evaluating what has happened, why it occurred, and how an organization reacted. Before a crisis, you can use systems thinking to identify patterns and trends that have developed over time, underlying pattern influences and relationships, and organizational mental models and belief systems.

With systems thinking, combined with the buy-in of your leaders, employees, and stakeholders, your organization and leadership can and will be seen as proactive instead of reactive, and most importantly, as heroes rather than villains.