June 1, 2018

Overcoming the Conflict between Safety and Production: Part 4 – The Challenges of Being a Middle Manager or Supervisor

Who wants to be a Middle Manager or Production Supervisor in hazardous industries where the primary driver is profit from output?
Despite ‘Safety First’ and other branding which is intended to drive the company culture and decision-making from the executive to the shop floor, the middle manager and production supervisor can be left vulnerable to changing priorities, inconsistent messaging and role conflict.
For instance, the production supervisor is accountable for safety and production concurrently within organizational cultures that often do not support both objectives concurrently. If production targets aren’t achieved because of downtime to rectify safety and maintenance issues, the supervisor is accountable. If incidents occur in the pursuit of production, the supervisor is also accountable.
Throw into this mix the potential for an unspoken code of competition to develop amongst production supervisors and the challenges of this critical role become even more concerning for overall business performance. The supervisor with consistently highest output for his/her shift may simply have a team sub-culture that is production-centric, whilst the lowest output performer’s team may be collectively rectifying accumulated safety and maintenance issues of other shifts. If in the organization, there is a known ‘pecking order’ of production shift supervisors whether by open recognition or local knowledge, the business has a problem.
Competition amongst production supervisors may be endorsed either overtly or covertly by middle managers who are also under pressure to achieve production targets. These middle hierarchy roles are unnecessarily difficult due to conflicting demands. As a result, intentional avoidance of safety and maintenance issues can become ingrained in the culture.
Research models
As the Entropy Model shows, the failure to consistently address these issues results in degradation of system inputs (work practices, technologies/plant/equipment, the physical work environment and human resources). Degradation leads to rising ‘entropic risk’ which makes production losses, quality deficiencies and HSE incidents inevitable.
One of the significant gaps in the discussion about safety and organizational decision-making has been the failure to clearly frame a defensible case for the middle manager and production supervisor to take to their manager for the performance of their team. What can be done when despite the ‘Safety First’ messaging, actual and perceived production pressure exists at these levels in the hierarchy? This dilemma highlights the discrepancy between cultural ideals and operational reality.
Executive and Senior Management can usually see the ‘big picture’ that continuity of production is the critical issue and this can be achieved by managing risk. Consistent production requires that systems are maintained at optimum performance by rectifying issues as they arise and by preventing incidents. However, senior management can’t always be confident of aligned decision-making by middle managers and production supervisors. This confidence can only be achieved by embedding a Risk Management Culture, operational leadership skills and a decision framework by which the business manages risk to pursue production, quality output and HSE incident mitigation concurrently.
Management framework
Middle management and supervisors need a framework for decision-making, referred to as ‘The Reasonableness Test’ (© Productive Safety Management) to filter decisions so only those that are aligned with the desired Risk Management Culture are implemented. Without this, the organization is missing the opportunity to:
Develop depth of risk leadership competence
Make the transformation from ‘safety thinking’ to ‘risk management thinking’
Break down silos between operational departments by embedding a risk-based approach to safe production
Consistently implement operational decisions that pursue production, quality work and mitigate HSE incidents concurrently
Build capacity through people using top-down and bottom-up strategies.

Tania Van der Stap, Founder and Principal Director of Align Risk Management
Tania Van der Stap is the Founder and Principal Director of Align Strategic Management Services Pty Ltd established in 2002, after having Productive Safety Management published internationally by Butterworth-Heinemann. The publication presents a strategic, multi-disciplinary management system for hazardous industries that ties safety and production together.
From 2002 to 2012, Tania provided HSE consulting services to Chevron’s Gorgon Project, Monadelphous, Baker Hughes, Fortescue Metals Group and Worley Parsons. Thereafter for 5 years, Tania took a HSE Manager’s role with AngloGold Ashanti Australia where she made significant improvements taking the department from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘proactive’ on the HSE journey.
In late 2016, her company was rebadged to Align Risk Management specialising in HSE Consulting and Risk Leadership Programs for managers, supervisors, HSE professionals and workers. Her chapter on ‘Risk Leadership – A Multi-Disciplinary Approach’ has been accepted by the American Society of Safety Professionals and will be published in Safety Leadership and Professional Development ahead of the ASSP’s 2018 Safety Conference.
In addition to Productive Safety Management being a substantial, refereed publication, Tania’s credentials include academic qualifications in Commerce and also Public Health and Safety.
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