HR and Health & Safety
Houston, you have a solution
Houston, you have a solution

John Barley provides some lessons from NASA to help business owners create a smarter and safer workplace.

The prospect of learning safety leadership lessons from a NASA astronaut, US thought leaders and other world-class organisations was too good an opportunity for John Barley to pass up.

So earlier this year the long-time insurance broker and business resilience consultant boarded a plane bound for Houston to attend the seminar Safety Leadership: How to Drive Excellence and Beat the Competition.

He was the only Kiwi presenting on a panel discussion at the symposium that focused specifically on safety – one of the toughest leadership challenges many businesses face.

Motivated by what he believes are far too many preventable accidents in New Zealand’s workplace, safety has become a personal calling for John. 

It’s led to reading voraciously on the topic, searching to find new approaches to workplace wellbeing while boosting the bottom-line. He mentors all sorts from truckies to plumbers – sharing practical tips about reducing absenteeism, risk and burnout.

The intention is that his clients cultivate workplaces that are healthier, happier and more productive. 

In 2014 John founded RiteTrack specifically to mentor SMEs with free educational resources, videos and events about safety, business productivity and resilience. That led to a serendipitous connection on LinkedIn with published Amazon author and recognised US culture change expert Brian Feilkow.

It was Brian who extended a personal invitation for John to join him on the speaker panel in Houston.

The safety leadership event was less about rules and regulations, and more about culture – behaviour, philosophy and attitude. Organisers advocating that the principles that drive safety excellence are the same ones that drive bottom-line operational results.


Lessons from Houston

So what did John learn? Simply, if you get the culture right, you’ll have a high chance of safety success.

“The culture of the organisation is crucial. It’s not a ‘them and us’ situation – it’s an ‘us’ situation. Particular problems or risk solutions are to be worked out jointly to make it safer,” he says.

Moving away from using the term “staff” is another tip.

“We should be referring to the individuals working within the organisation as people or as a team, they’re not staff. Staff is statistical – it’s hard data,” explains John.

The main reason for the reframing is so when there is an incident it cannot be shoved away in a drawer and put under data – it must become personal.

“People have to realise that, yes, somebody has been injured, somebody has died but what is the collateral damage to their families? They’ve got to make it personal.”

Making time to ask the tough questions even during busy operational times could save lives he says. 

“By taking the time you are going to arrive at a better resolution and solution than taking the ‘she’ll be right, mate’ approach. As soon as you start doing that, that’s when you’re going to start to make mistakes, errors of judgment and getting wastage.”


Lessons from Challenger

The chilling consequence from a massive error of judgment was further reinforced at the seminar by NASA astronaut Mike Mullane, who spoke at length about the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. 

It was plain to John that human error led to the deaths of the seven crew members when the orbiter came apart, exploding 73 seconds after its launch from the Kennedy Space Station.

Although the Shuttle was checked every time, failures weren’t continuous he learnt – it was an ad hoc failure caused by the micro 0.25mm flange around the rockets not doing its job.

The disaster was the sum of all the failures, says John. No one was thinking bigger picture. The engineers were making notes and sharing the information, but it was being ignored.

“What they should’ve said was no more flights – this must be sorted out immediately. 

“What happened instead was the simple inability of people to deal with a simple problem; a problem so small yet it created a huge loss of lives.”

What John also heard from the line-up of world-renowned safety leaders was that to implement culture change you need to know who the opinion leaders are within an organisation. 

“They may not be in management at all and they may work on the shop floor. You can recognise them as they’re constantly used as a point of referencing by all the people. 

“It’s important when looking at safety improvement that the business owner gets them on board quick smart.”

He also believes compliancy is not difficult – “it’s just a mindset”
for business owners to accept.


Taking ownership

Leaders of an organisation must be aware and open to knowing they’ll be challenged by their people around safety.

“It’s healthy and means your team are thinking and wanting to expand the envelope rather than just being dictated to. It’s up to everyone to take ownership of the final result through working together,” says John.

So what’s in the SME first-aid kit to make the workplace smart, safe and harmonious?

Words like taking time, respectfulness, humility, compassion and compromise quickly roll off John’s tongue. “A true understanding about the power of culture within the organisation so you work as a team, plus having a leader that doesn’t take that high and mighty role of saying, 'I’m the Boss – do as you’re told'. 

There is absolutely no room for ego in a safety leadership culture.”    

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