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In his book "Complications" Dr. Atul Gawande journeys past the blue curtains, automatic doors, and those signs that say "Staff Only" in order to demystify the current practice of modern medicine. Although I read this book in 2003, its lessons are still fresh with me today.

Several chapters of the book explain the importance of perfecting the systems by which people operate, thereby decreasing the amount of instances something can go wrong. Dr. Gawande is a surgeon, and so he explained that when a surgeon makes an error, they solely focus on the system that broke down and not necessarily the individual that seemingly "failed."

This seems the obvious reflection of the fact that humans are prone to error, and so we need to perfect systems to save us from ourselves. People will never be perfect; however, when you identify every little variable that can inhibit ones ability to perform at the top of ones game, than you not only increase productivity, but diminish historical levels of risk.

Paul O'Neill became CEO of Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) in 1987, and despite widespread ridicule, he made clear that he would singularly focus on worker safety to increase worker efficiency and collective profit maximization.

The reporters ran from their seats after that shareholder meeting to the payphones (remember those) to encourage everyone they knew to sell! Notwithstanding external doubt, Chairman O'Neill became "extremely successful, as the company's revenues increased from $1.5 billion in 1987 to $23 billion in 2000 and O'Neill's personal fortune grew to $60 million (Wikipedia)."

In the past, Alcoa focused on stretching safety limits in the interest of increasing work utility.

The problem was workers were being injured and even killed at alarming rates due to these lax standards. When O'Neill came in, he created systems by which injuries were quickly relayed from the factory, to his desk, so all of the parties involved could create better systems to avoid similar occurrences from happening in the future.

Training was critical, and so was the strict adherence to rules created by O'Neill; however, Alcoa became immensely successful due to the safety systems that were perfected through human trial and error implemented by O'Neill.

Here are a few tips from a seminar I am putting together aimed at minimizing deficiencies and enhancing staff performance:

  1. Niche your staff. The more often an employee conducts a given task, the better they will be at it.
  2. Ensure none of your managers supervise more than 4 staff members at a time. Create a hierarchical structure where every four staff members represents one team, with one team-leader upholding the company standard over the four. This minimizes manager exhaustion while increasing the staff's ability to govern themselves. Now instead of 10 employees and one manager, you have two teams being supervised by two team-leaders that answer directly to your manager.
  3. Ensure workers can contribute to the systems they operate in by providing outlets for private suggestions for workplace improvement. This was one of the primary measures that ensured Mr. O'Neill received the most insightful feedback for improving workplace safety.

Why is it when surgeons make mistakes, we blame the systems, however, when Mark who makes $15/hr forgets to run the cardboard compacter in the back of ShopRite, he is considered a screw up?

Just remember that when an employee screws up (and remember, everybody screws up), blame your system first, improve it with your employee later.

Good luck to you, and if you find any misspellings, blame my spellchecker 😉

Don't compete — DOMINATE.


Matt Steffen

"Don't compete -- DOMINATE!"

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Matt Steffen was Listed by Forbes as the #1 Marketing Consultant Who Avoids the B.S.