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Manage for Correctness, Not for Failure

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When it comes to managing the next generation of workers, construction business owners can take a lesson from the warning light at Three Mile Island.

In March 1979, the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania experienced a partial core meltdown in one of its reactors. The failure was in part attributed to a burned-out light, if you can believe it. There were many layers of safety systems, of course, and one of them required a light to turn on in the event of a failure. Due to something as simple as a burned-out bulb, the safety system failed to warn, and the result was an anxiety-producing partial meltdown that resulted in a firestorm of media coverage. To summarize, Three Mile Island was monitoring for failure.

Even though I am 60 years old, when I’m going on a trip my mom still says, “Call me when you get there and let me know that you've arrived safely." Moms the world over probably don't know they’re utilizing this technique, but they're monitoring, in contrast to the nuclear power plant, for correctness. The alternative would be, "Call me if something goes wrong," but there’s a problem with that: It may be a really, really long time before you're able to call and notify her that something went wrong. Worse, you could have an accident or injury, and it would be even longer before you're in a position to call. There's a big difference in managing for correctness and managing for failure.

With respect to Three Mile Island, what would a better system have looked like? What might they have done to manage for correctness instead of failure? Quite simply, their light could have always remained on so that when it turned off, the safety team would leap into action. The first thing they would check is the light itself. If that’s the only issue, no problem. On the other hand, that warning could point to a much bigger issue in need of attention. Their system should've been designed to search for correctness—in this case perfection—and not for failure.

Construction tends to be a pretty thankless industry. Most construction firms preach a mantra of "Hurry up, do it faster, do it better, be more efficient, make more money,” etc. Construction firms also tend to monitor for failure, and the industry has a well-deserved reputation for kicks in the butt for people who make mistakes. For people my age, that's simply how we were treated when we were coming along and learning our ways around the workplace. It was taken for granted that you’d hear some noise if you made an error; if you did your job well and got things done, well, that’s what you were SUPPOSED to do, and you wouldn’t hear anything about it. That's no longer the case with the younger people who are increasingly making up more and more of your work force. Their expectations of their supervisors’ behaviors and their companies’ cultures are quite different.

Contractors today should find ways to celebrate ordinary behaviors and everyday successes and emphasize them. Managing for correctness, of course, means that you need to work on your business. You need to define your culture; you need to have a clearly communicated direction and specific plans for the future. You need to have codes of conduct and standard operating procedures. Once you have all these in place, you can more easily manage for correctness.

If you don't invest time working on your business, defining your culture, and planning for your future, it makes it too easy to default to old-fashioned butt kicking instead of managing for correctness. Wouldn’t it be better for your organization to monitor for goodness, for opportunities to recognize people, to appreciate them, and to give them some praise? Can you catch your people doing things right instead of unloading on them when they make mistakes? Wouldn’t pats on the back and warm words be better motivators than kicks in the rear end? You do have a choice.

Wayne Rivers is the president of The Family Business Institute, Inc. FBI’s mission is to build better contractors! Wayne can be reached at 877-326-2493, [email protected], or at www.familybusinessinstitute.com.

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