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Stand up for Safety with Dr. Todd Conklin

​(Opening montage.)

KEVIN WINGERT:  Welcome to Energy Pulse Northwest, I'm Kevin Wingert with Bonneville Power's Communications Department.  I have with me today Dr. Todd Conklin, who is a human and organizational performance expert and a bestselling author.  Welcome. 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Thank you. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  All right, so we're going to start off with a question from the presentation you gave earlier this morning.  We had a question from the audience we weren't able to get to.  The question is:  What do you do when the solution to a safety problem costs too much? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  That's a really good question.  The first thing I would say is never let great be the enemy of good.  And remember, the powerful thing you guys have, and you really do have this, is the ability to micro experiment, to prototype.  Don't not solve a safety problem because you don't have money, although I would suggest that's kind of a misnomer. 

What I would encourage you to do is, if you have a problem, ask the workers who do the work to help you solve the problem.  So, formulate the question, and come up with the corrective action, the solution.  But then ask them to help prioritize it.  So, ask them to give you three solutions, not just one.  Give the immediate, "dirt cheap, I can do it now" solution, right?  Give the near-term, little more time, little more energy, maybe a little more approvals.  And then give us the Cadillac solution, $1 million, ten years to do. 

And then you have a data set around the same problem that allows management to determine, really, their graded approach to solving the problem. 

So, we had a staircase in the plutonium facility at Los Alamos.  Because it's inside a classified area, because it's in a plutonium facility, it would have cost millions and millions of dollars to replace the staircase, and it was dangerous.  Our interim solution was to create an alternative way to get up and down the stairs, the back stars, but that wasn't efficient. 

Our team decided that they wanted to paint the staircase pink.  Right?  So, it's a pink staircase.  You notice a pink staircase.  I mean, it's just a hot pink staircase.  That was a really good interim solution that increase awareness, decreased the events, and allows us a little room to budget in and change the staircase.  We eventually changed the stairs, but we gave them different ideas, different ways to solve it. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Yeah, good.  Awesome answer.  I want to start off with, first off, you've had a lot of experience both within the federal government working for the government as well as being called out routinely on incidents and accidents in the private industry sector as well. 

I'm wondering, from your perspective, what sort of feel do you get from our safety culture?  What are your impressions? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Oh, that's a great question.  So, let me tell you a little secret thing.  When you're in the boiling water and you're the toad, you don't know it's boiling, right? 

I used to think we sucked at investigations in our safety department because I always thought, you know, the industry, the real world, they must do it so much better than us.  They must be better, faster, cheaper, quicker.  We're, you know, bureaucratically burdened, it takes forever to get a decision. 

The biggest lesson I learned is that when it comes to things like investigations, we kill industry.  We're a million times better -- a million times better -- and have been for a long time.  That was a huge lesson for me because I wanted to say, "They have everything, they can move quickly and make a lot of money," but, in fact, you guys are in a position where learning is really valued. 

To me, one of the benefits of being in a federal job like you guys have -- on the federal side -- is that the luxury of slowing down to analyze and slowing down to learn, that luxury doesn't exist in industry.  They're so fixated.  "We've got to fix it, we've got to fix it immediately."  So, of course, we do way better event learning, way better investigations, because we have the talent, that's without question, and the time to actually be better. 

That would be my big -- that was a huge "ah-hah" for me. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Okay, fair enough.  From that experience that you draw upon, what areas do you think the federal government -- typically kind of weak when it comes to safety and maybe needs more effort or more attention paid to? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Oh, that's a good question.  So, nothing comes to mind, which is probably a good sign. 

I think there's a tendency to make safety a little bit of "try harder, care more."  But, generally speaking, on the fed side, I don't even see a lot of pressure around that.  There's kind of almost all up side and not a lot of down side.  You also have fewer accidents.  I mean, you're pretty good at being safe, and it's not seen as a luxury.  I mean, you can afford to be safe, and so you guys are safe. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Here at BPA, we've been on a safety journey, I guess you would say, where we've gone through, made safety a core value and kind of a cornerstone of everything that we do.  What I'm wondering is, as that journey goes on -- and you talked a little bit about the curve and how it has a tendency to kind of bottom out in terms of improvement and you kind of get stuck into an area, how do you --

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Asymptote. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Yes, an asymptote. 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  It's an asymptote. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  How do you encourage workforce and keep focus on continuously improving safety and avoid either cynicism or safety burnout? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Learning.  So, do better jobs at learning, ask questions, and treat workers like they're experts, not like they're the problem.  So, asking workers to care more or try harder, I mean, that's just not very meaningful.  It sort of implies -- and workers are smart -- it implies that the problem is the workers.  If you just tried harder or cared more, if you took safety personally.  What?  I don't even know what that means.  That's crazy.  That's like saying, "You should take office supplies personally."  Right?  It's a work function. 

The key is to realize that the answer to all the questions are the people who do the work.  And so, what I find is if you take time and ask people what they need in order to do this job safety, the answers they give you usually aren't very expensive, but they're usually brilliant. 

I guess the question I'd ask you guys is:  When's the last time they took a procedure away?  Right?  That's a really good question.  Are all procedures the same?  Are they all meaningful?  Does safety exist on paper or does safety exist in practice?  And for you guys, because you're really adaptive and spread out and you've got lots of workers working in different environments, I would actually suggest what you count on, what you rely on are workers.  So, asking them to care more, it seems like a waste of time.  What I would ask is:  What's our best procedures?  What's our worst procedures?  And how can we may it actually easier to be safe? 

KEVIN WINGERT:  How do you constructively challenge either an individual or an organization who believes that they're already on the right path to building a safety culture, or they have a strong safety record, but the focus is more on preventing the accident instead of creating an environment where an accident can occur safely?

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  So, two reasons:  One, as you said earlier, it's a journey, right?  So, you have to take the group where they are and get them to go where you want them to go.  And it's kind of iterative.  You sort of work along the path.

The other thing is that you have to help teach through discussion, but really through examples of success, how important the resilient side of this equation is.  You really manage three types of safety:  You manage prevention safety, you manage work execution safety, and then you manage resilience.  And what happens is there tends to be sort of a bias towards prevention.  If we work really hard, we'll prevent every accident.  And what happens is it's at the cost of the resilient side.

So, what you really want to ask, you want to change the question.  So, you ask workers, "When you do this job, what will kill you or what will hurt you?"  And they'll answer.  And then you say, "When that happens --" not if, but when, when it happens, because we don't have perfect systems, don't have perfect people, don't have perfect processes.  "When it happens, what keeps you from dying?"  And they'll answer.  And then ask them the third question, "Is that sufficient?  Is that enough?" 

And what that does is it sort of breaks through the bias of prevention and it says, "We can't manage failure based upon probability, we have to manage failure based upon capacity."  So, like you guys are in an interesting position because the hazard you interface with, and there's tons of them, but the big hazard is electricity.  It's invisible, odorless, colorless, and it wants to go to ground, it wants to kill you, right?  You'll never manage that by asking people to be more careful.  You can only manage that by asking people to wear arc flash protection or to wear dialectically controlled boots, I mean, insulated tools, insulated boom trucks.  Assume they're going to have the accident and manage for the consequence of the accident. 

And once you get there, actually, the real answer is once you look at where your systems are most successful, what you're going to find is they're successful not because they try to prevent events, they're successful because they prepare for events, they're ready for them.  And when they happen, everything works the way it's supposed to work. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  So, we've talked a lot about kind of that organizational, policy-level approach.  And I'm wondering if we can drill it down to more of an individual level.  What are some of the simple things that individual workers can do to improve their safety culture? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Constantly detect and correct.  Keep doing what you're doing.  The next change in your safety program is not going to be at the individual level.  The next change of your safety program is going to be at the organizational level. 

So, the better question is not what could people do more of, because they're already constantly out there not dying, not getting hurt, detecting and correcting.  The question I'd ask you is:  Where are your systems most robust, where they have the most tolerance for failure, and how are they failure tolerant?  And where are your systems weakest?  Because those are the ones you want to identify.  Look for success, because it's out there, but also look for places where you're incredibly brittle, where the potential to fail is really high. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Okay.  From your perspective, going, again, to kind of that human organizational component, performance, what are the best ways to recognize and reinforce positive behavior from the workforce or from an organization? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Tell success stories.  So, don't use failure to describe normal; use normal to predict failures.  So, talk about how work happens normally and what's going on to make it robust and mature.  But you've got to tell more success stories, because right now we just tell stories of failure.  So, all we hear are stories of failure.  I'd love to hear about a near miss that you guys were -- the reason it didn't happen is because your systems are so robust it caught it before it had consequence. 

But I'd caution you guys, don't focus on changing the worker.  The worker is actually the solution.  Focus on somehow embracing and engaging the worker so that the worker really becomes a part of this journey.  They're telling you where you're good, and they're telling you where you're weak.  It's a really good question.  As a guy, say, "What's the worst procedure we have?"  And they'll tell you an answer.  And then say, "Why is it bad?"  And there will be an answer.  That should horrify you.  As soon as they answer it, you should be like, "Oh, okay, I'm getting on this and fixing it." 

KEVIN WINGERT:  So, I understand you've got a few additional interests in life -- podcaster, author.  What are some of the ways that people who might be interested in diving in a little more deep, how can they follow you?  What are some of those outlets?

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  So, the podcast is really a good way.  I have lots of books, and they're easy to -- I mean, just Google my name and there's a lot of books.  There's Pre-Accident, which is the big one.  And then there's one called Better Questions, which is really on learning teams, organizational learning.  And then my last one is called Workplace Fatalities, and that's actually the first book to the market on workplace fatalities, which seems weird.  Doesn't that seem weird?  But it was.  So, it's totally selling on crazy because nobody's ever written a book called that before. 

But the podcast is, I think, the most fun, because I just interview people -- all sorts of people, like famous people and normal linemen and just kind of everybody.  And I just mostly have a conversation with them.  I don't really ask them questions, I just kind of figure out what they're doing. 

It's mostly listened to by the high-performance computing people.  So, like the guys that run Google, Netflix, those guys?  They're really into what's called DevOps.  They're really into looking at reliability and resilience, and they're actually taking lots of lessons from safety into their operations. 

I don't really have any -- I don't even have a webpage because I've got a podcast.  I've got half a million listeners.  How many you got?  (Laughter.) 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Half of a half of a half of a million?  (Laughter.)  So, where can people find that podcast? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Anywhere.  Just Google my name and "podcast."  It's on Stitcher, iTunes.

KEVIN WINGERT:  And anything else you'd like to add? 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Long-time listener, first-time caller. 

KEVIN WINGERT:  Awesome.  Appreciate that. 

DR. TODD CONKLIN:  Okay, good luck.