Look, Listen and Learn: The Path to Effective Management Observations

Management Observations

For some, the term “observation,” as typically used in safety, has a negative connotation.  It is often associated with checklists and a search for “bad behaviors” in need of correction.  Clumsily conducted worker-focused observations/inspections can easily appear patronizing and leave workers feeling spied upon.  Such observations are often counterproductive and definitely do not convey what is meant by management observations as described in this article.   In my work promoting manager and supervisor real time work engagement I often use the term “Management Walkarounds” to avoid the associated negativity of some to more traditional observation efforts.  Let’s keep the observation term for now, however, as it is familiar to many, but attempt to transform it from something negative to a more positive and productive means for gaining operational awareness and worker engagement.

Optimizing Your Management Observations

A genuine understanding of work as actually performed cannot be delegated or acquired merely by reviewing accident statistics.  Nor will you achieve this understanding from behind your desk. Well implemented management observations can, however, provide the means to realistically gauge safety performance and, at the same time build positive worker/manager relationships, encourage worker engagement, and help drive continuous improvement.

Optimized management observations focus on the work as a whole rather than the more common focus on worker behavior.  The goal is to first gain a better understanding of the work then to partner with those actually doing that work to identify, not just problems, but opportunities to accomplish the work safer and/or more efficiently.  The ultimate objective being to look, listen, learn and improve.

Optimized management observations employ some basic principles:

  1. Observe work where it is performed.  Every observation should start with some amount of time spent watching a work activity – ideally, a safety critical activity.  This is essential and is what differentiates optimized observations from more traditional compliance-based inspections that focus on unsafe conditions or behaviors.  To borrow from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits – seek first to understand.
  2. Focus on the work, not the worker.  Unsafe conditions and behaviors are not ignored but are recognized as symptoms of potentially more serious deficiencies in the safety system (e.g., training, supervision, tools, production pressure, procedures, etc.).  “Observations should include the total job. In-the-field observations by managers or employees look at what error traps employees may be encountering based on signals they are providing. These observations may uncover critical learning that needs to be institutionalized to reduce or eliminate potential errors.” (Wachter and Yorio, 2013).
  3. Actively listen to and engage the workers.  Workers are the ones closest to the work and know better than anyone what the hazards are and how well (or not) the controls are working.  When workers are engaged as partners in safety improvement, they are much more likely to view themselves as a valued and respected part of the safety solution.  Effective observations are conducted humbly with the workers, rather than something done to the workers.
  4. Take the time.  There is no free lunch here.  Worthwhile observations take a certain amount of time to prepare for and conduct.  Time is generally highly coveted by busy managers and in short supply.  Some observations will also require a degree of follow-up to address identified issues.  Still, there is great payback (that you cannot achieve by any other means) for an activity that in most cases needn’t consume more than a few hours a month.  Few management actions will produce such a high rate of return.

Subsequent articles will explore “how-to” techniques to enhance the effectiveness of your observations and to help you to avoid common pitfalls.

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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 conferences. He 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.


Wachter, J.K., and Yorio, P.L. (2013) A System of Safety Management Practices and Worker Engagement for Reducing and Preventing Accidents: An Empirical and Theoretical Investigation. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 68, 117-130. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.aap.2013.07.029

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