Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership?

Mar 19th, 2012 | By | Category: Health and Safety

On a recent flight from Newark to Chicago, I sat next to an American Airlines pilot, with whom I struck up a conversation. In the midst of our discussion, the flight attendant began the usual speech on safety instructions, seat belts, and evacuation. The pilot stopped talking and said, “I need to listen to these instructions.”

“What the heck!” I thought. “This guy flies the plane. Certainly he knows how to get out of this plane. Why does he need to listen to the flight attendant talk about how to buckle a seat belt?”  As we spoke about his action, I realized that the pilot’s behavior was all about operational discipline, with a smattering of good safety leadership.

The pilot knows that every detail for flying an airplane can be important. He’s not there to judge what’s important and what isn’t.  There’s a procedure for flying an airplane, and the procedure needs to be followed. This is operational discipline.

Think about the story of British Airways Flight 9. This plane flew into a cloud of volcanic ash over Indonesia and lost all four engines. The pilot calmly looked for the procedure to restart all four engines. It was there, and the plane was saved. Operational discipline.

Operational discipline ensures not only that an operation is done correctly every time but that it’s done the safe way all the time.  It’s not up to the operator (or pilot) to change the procedure or ignore the procedure. It’s up to the operator to have the discipline to follow the procedure.

Look back and compare this incident with the explosion at a refinery in Texas City, Texas.  Procedures were in place; granted, they were in engineering-speak and at the university level, but they were there. However, the local culture was to ignore the procedure (e.g., the alarm reset button). Leadership not only ignored procedural violations, it rewarded violations that led to improved efficiencies.

Operational discipline is a function of strong safety (and operational) leadership. It takes leadership to set the expectations and then follow up to make sure those expectations are met.  The safety walk that a leader takes, therefore, has to include a review of operating procedures and their usefulness and adherence. We all know that what leaders say and do matters, and the questions they ask are important. It’s one of the ways to re-enforce operational discipline and correct deviations.

Let’s return to the pilot on my flight. He was in uniform. A pilot in uniform represents the job and the airline. Could a pilot who doesn’t have discipline in the back of the plane be expected to have discipline in the front of the plane? That pilot, therefore, was a safety leader and an advocate for operational discipline.

So, in answer to the question posed by the title of this article, no, operational discipline does not replace strong safety leadership. Both operational discipline and strong safety leadership are needed to establish a strong safety culture!


About the Author

Laurence Pearlman is a Director with Corven, Inc. in Lisle, Illinois, U.S.A. He advises energy and natural resource clients on safety performance improvement and change management. Laurence specializes in engaging employees and leaders to drive ownership and sustainability of safety processes. Previously, Laurence worked for Amoco, BP, Exxon, and Pfizer. He is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois. He was part of the team that assessed the culture of BP Refining after the Texas City incident and identified leadership and cultural interventions to reduce risk.  He holds degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa.


Photograph: Safety Lights by David Ritter, Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.A. 


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11 Comments to “Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership?”

  1. […] Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership? […]

  2. […] Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership? […]

  3. […] Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership? […]

  4. Habash says:

    Operational discipline is a function of strong safety (and operational) leadership

  5. […] Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership? […]

  6. […] Does Operational Discipline Replace Strong Safety Leadership? […]

  7. Carl Marx says:

    Dear Laurence,

    A very good article, I bet the pilot did not even think about what he was doing, he did it as a matter of habit. Good safety practices like wearing a safety belt in a car, is not what we think about, it is the so-called subconscious automation that makes for good operational discipline.

    If the leader does not subconsciously believe and act in line with the safety rules nobody can expect the line staff to follow.

    Keep up the good articles.

  8. Shafiq Khan says:

    Like phrase “Charity begins at home”, it is “Safety, begins with me”, NOT YOU.

  9. Katie Mehnert says:

    Great job Larry.

  10. Blaise LeCompte says:

    Good job, Larry! Very well written and to the point. It that simple! Get out from your desk and meetings and be visible!

  11. Shauna D says:

    Great Article!

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