Business improvement: they just don’t get it

Recently I visited a food and beverage manufacturing company to discuss how we could assist them with incident investigation and how it can be used to improve their operations. I’d been invited along by their HSE manager who was very familiar with incident investigation in the workplace.

The meeting

The organisation had grown fairly quickly from a small local producer to an internationally recognised brand with operations on three continents. Their HSE manager realised that they needed a more defined and organised process for investigation and improvement on a company-wide basis.

In the room was the HSE manager, production manager, logistics manager and customer service manager. I spent a good hour with them discussing how robust incident investigation and analysis is essential to diagnosing problems within a business and is key to properly identifying how to prevent future occurrences.

The follow-up

The following day I called the HSE manager to discuss how the meeting went. He advised me that he himself and the production manager (who had previously worked for multi-national food and beverage conglomerates and had done investigation and root cause analysis training before) immediately bought into what I was suggesting.

However he also informed me that the logistics manager and customer service manager “didn’t really get it”. He said they just didn’t understand how investigation is applicable to their areas of the business. We spent the next thirty minutes discussing why we believe this to be the case. In the end, I came to the following conclusion: Because the stakes aren’t high enough for them to care.

The logic (or lack of)

Let me explain. When a person is injured (or worse killed) in the workplace, not only do organisations have a legal obligation to investigate, they want to ensure the incident never happens again. For this reason, the significance of incident investigation skills, methodology and training has advanced considerably in the safety world over the last 30 years.

However when ‘incidents’ occur in other areas of business – for example a project failure, loss of product, poor customer experience, etc. – are we obliged to investigate? Could we be prosecuted for the failure? Probably not. And it’s for this reason that when it comes to business improvement, the safety teams are way ahead of everyone else. They get it!

Different scenarios, same process

As I tell people during training courses, the principles of investigating a quality failure, or a theft, or a loss of product, or a murder or a safety incident are exactly the same, and are key to identifying the real causes. Note causes (plural), because it’s never just one thing.

Workplace incidents are never confined to just one area or department. Enlightened managers who want to continually improve their performance across all areas of their business get that. What’s more, they use incident investigation as an ongoing proactive business tool, rather than an infrequent reactive necessity.