Our client is a major chemical company. It was early morning and I was in Andy Brown’s office, the Vice President of U.S. Manufacturing. The night before, there had been an explosion and fire in one of their Gulf Coast plants. Andy and I were discussing the situation when his boss, the EVP Operations, called. After talking for a few minutes, Andy put down the phone and said,

“He wants to know what happened and he wants some heads on the table. I tried to tell him that I can do either of those things but I can’t do both. He wouldn’t listen.”

Andy and I discussed his dilemma and he soon came up with a one-liner that I thought would make a great corporate bumper sticker:

IF YOU WANT A SAFE PLANT YOU MUST HAVE SAFE MEETINGS

Andy realized that to get at the root cause of the explosion, he needed to create a place where people felt safe to speak the truth. If they were afraid for their job, he probably could not get at the real cause and therefore not know what procedure modifications to make to prevent another similar blast. Andy was a sophisticated manager who knew that problems were best understood by looking at the system that led to them. The root cause for any problem lies in the system or context, not in the event itself. To Andy, the explosion was a symptom. His boss thought it was the problem.

You may feel that there is never an excuse for people to perform poorly, but if you look, there is always an explanation. In fact, if you want to improve people’s performance, get to the cause. People don’t come to work to perform poorly. People want to be proud of their work and feel that they are valuable and appreciated part of the enterprise. People don’t deliberately do the wrong thing. Even if they are careless, their apparent carelessness has a reason — from their point of view. Let us say that again — from their point of view.

You can always tap into the desire of people to perform well and be seen as a valuable team member. When debriefing a problem, you can tap into that desire by getting the right people together, creating a safe place and asking questions that help tease out people’s experience of the situation—their point of view.

Here are some questions I find useful when you’ve gathered together a group of people who are involved in the issue. It is important that each person be asked to speak and that you don’t allow discussion about what a person says. The purpose is for the group to discover the various points of view in the group, not to determine if one is “correct.”

Questions to remind the person about the concrete situation

  • Were you there?
  • What were you doing at the time?

Questions about their experience

  • What did you see?
  • What were you thinking?
  • What did you do?

There are many questions like these to show you care about people and want their involvement. What you ask depends on the situation and your purpose.

Safe meetings are powerful. They affect each function of the company.

 

IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE PRODUCTIVITY
YOU MUST HAVE SAFE MEETINGS


IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE SALES
YOU MUST HAVE SAFE MEETINGS


IF YOU WANT TO INCREASE PROFITS
YOU MUST HAVE SAFE MEETINGS


IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE CUSTOMER CARE
YOU MUST HAVE SAFE MEETINGS

Safe meetings are led by people who encourage members to be candid and protect them from retribution.