How’s It Really Going: The Importance of Management Observations

Management Observations

How often after a significant incident does your management act surprised?  “We had no idea,” or “We have a really low TRIR rate; how could this have happened to us?”  Well, of course, surprises do happen.  But far too often we only find out about longstanding problems and vulnerabilities after the fact.  This is unacceptable, especially in high consequence operations, and it does not have to be that way. 

High Reliability Organizations (HROs) with outstanding safety performance have long recognized the need to see what is actually happening in the field “regardless of what we were supposed to do based on intentions, designs, and plans. HROs make an effort to see what people with greasy hands know.” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001).  This article will discuss why real time management observations, and worker interactions, are so important.  Subsequent articles will take a deeper look at what such observations should look like and how to perform them effectively.

Due Diligence

Managers have an obligation to understand how safely the work they are responsible for, especially high-consequence safety critical work, is performed. Lack of such an understanding has been a recurrent and principal factor in multiple well publicized tragedies from the Columbia and Challenger disasters to the Deepwater Horizon explosion.  Believing (or hoping) that the work is performed safely just because you issued rules and procedures and told everyone to follow them is not enough.  Companies too often fail to know that procedures were not used (or were not usable), that the lessons from previous events weren’t learned, that corrective actions weren’t implemented, that supervision was AWOL, or that vital equipment wasn’t maintained – until after the tragedy.  In legal terms this obligation to understand operational safety (and act appropriately) is known as due diligence. 

You Won’t Find Reality from Behind a Desk

For more than 30 years I managed various organizations with from five to several hundred employees and with budgets often in excess of $10 million. Certainly, many managers have bigger burdens but even my relatively modest levels of management responsibility were often all consuming. I know how very easy it is for busy managers to become totally reactive, and desk bound.  In reactive mode, however, safety can become an afterthought that only comes to the fore as unwanted and time-consuming problems.  Much better to get out from behind your desk periodically to involve yourself in work activities to help head off issues before they become problems.  In addition to proactive problem solving, well conducted management observations will pay substantial dividends in multiple ways.  This is why HROs put so much emphasis on observation and relationship building and consider them foundational to proactive safety management.

Building Positive Relationships

Manager/workforce relationships, fostered by effective two-way communication, are arguably the most important activities an organization can take to achieve employee engagement, cooperation, and continuous improvement.  Not surprisingly, workers respond favorably to managers who demonstrate a personal interest in their work, their safety – and themselves.  The benefits of this grown-up approach to employee relations are obvious and go far beyond safety. Supervisors and managers that observe work in progress and discuss it with their workers not only gain a more complete picture of how the work of the organization is performed, but they also gain an important opportunity to engage with their workers and involve them in personally improving the safety and efficiency of the work they perform.  This kind of positive relationship building can greatly enhance worker trust and morale so critical to both safety, and productivity.

In Summary

Hopefully, this article has convinced you that management observations are critical for operational awareness, and, for promoting positive worker/management relationships.  We will look closer at how to optimize your observation benefits in future articles.

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Jim Loud

Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.

Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferencesHe is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma, and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.


Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001) Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in An Age of Complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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