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President’s Message – Latest Scoop 2023 Issue 4

I Made a Mistake, and I am Responsible

Keith Headshot

The holidays are supposed to be a joyful time of year…celebrating the highlights of the past year, thinking about the hardships we encountered, and considering our hopes for the years ahead and what we can do to help make them a reality. Except that this year was almost very different for a few of us, and the potential of what could have happened brought an extra sense of weightiness to the season.

On one of our projects just before Christmas, one of our experienced crews ‘went through the motions’ our procedures for working around buried utilities and then made several assumptions about the information at hand. Those assumptions didn’t match reality under the asphalt and could have resulted in very bad outcomes.

Yes, we followed up with the things good managers do – a conversation to understand what happened, a Root Cause Analysis and sharing lessons learned, evaluate the Brubacher process to see what changes need to be made, and communicate accountability for actions in a way that builds trust.

In light of the nature of the incidents, I was keenly interested in meeting with the supervisor prior to his return to work in the project. No, I didn’t need to hear a re-hash of all the details that led to the situation…they were already thoroughly discussed with Operations leaders in the incident review. After an incident occurs, the hazard or damage has already been experienced, the cost incurred, and emotions revealed. I was interested in the level of personal awareness of responsibility and commitments about the future, asking these few questions:

  • What was YOUR responsibility in this situation?
  • What did you learn that will influence what you do differently in the future?
  • How do you plan to assure us that you are committed to living out safety as a value? How will we know that?

What followed was a vulnerable, healthy conversation that formed a foundation of accountability, specific leadership growth plan, and rebuilding of trust.

It is often tempting to deflect responsibility when things go wrong, rather than accept our part. Sometimes we get stuck on who caused what percentage of the issue rather than simply saying “I contributed to the problem.” The reverse of this is equally unhelpful when someone avoids addressing other contributing factors. While it looks more noble on the surface, it can actually sow the seeds of the next big problem because the tentacles of the root problem were overlooked.

Thankfully, the people involved in this situation chose wisely and avoided these pitfalls.

Another tendency that often occurs after a serious incident or near-incident occurs is to over-react either at the crew or organizational level. This can happen quite naturally whether in the field with a new work practice or in the office with a new financial procedure. We look at what occurred, or nearly occurred, and invent a new requirement, all with good intention. Sometimes they are so complex or burdensome they are unsustainable, or worse yet, followed by the crew or department that had the close call, but not by others in the organization.

Certainly, every good leader MUST evaluate processes and procedures BEFORE and after incidents and near-incidents. Improvements must be made where gaps exist. However, a good leader also pays attention to what is truly effective versus what looks or feels good simply because they acted.

When confronted by the reality that both we and those around us make mistakes, the question we face is this: “Are my responses, questions, and actions building a mindset of check-the-box compliance or a personal commitment to growth in excellence?”  If you’re brave, you’ll also ask that question to the people around you.

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