BIG on ideas


A few years ago a truck driver asked me “when are you going to do something about the delivery docks, the reversing lines are so faded it’s hard to position our trucks?”

Like all good managers I nodded caringly, made sure I had a suitably interested look on my face and told him I would talk to his manager and get it sorted. During my career I have had this conversation and probably the same look on my face countless times.

Like a good employee the driver told me his problem and I was happy to oblige. After all I am the manager, it’s what’s expected of me, I fix problems, I’m paid to take on challenges and make the decisions….right. Somewhere along the way this paradigm about what a ‘manager’ and what an ‘employee’ does started to bug me.

I asked my safety colleagues what they thought their roles were. Most said they make decisions, fix problems, are responsible for protecting the business and the people in it and ‘keep’ people safe. What does a worker do then? They responded a worker is responsible for themselves, looking out for their workmates, following instructions, attending training and complying too the rules.

Logically then safety managers get to where they are because they are committed, intelligent, educated, and willing to take on all challenges. So does that mean employees never really made it? Didn’t try that hard. Are perhaps content with their lot in life and look to us to fix things for them?

I really wanted to understand this. I began attending committee meetings and programs designed to ‘engage’ employees. Every meeting the same paradigm persisted. Through the veneer of ‘consultation’ employees raised problems or ideas and managers went off to fix them or managers came up with ideas and sold them to their employees. Manager’s call that ‘buy in’.

When did we become mum and dad to our employees? When did we start treating our employees like primary school kids or teenagers that need our guidance and direction? Or better still like a slightly stupid, untrustworthy mate that needs us to tell them what to do for their own good? Is this actually how we occur?!

I felt unsettled by this train of thinking. When did we decide as safety managers that our role was to protect people from themselves? To ‘keep’ people safe.

About this time I was in partnership with the University of Southern Queensland. We decided to run an experiment to see what would happen if we gave employees total power to make their own decision, create their own ideas and implement them for themselves. This was done in the purest sense. When I say ‘on their own’ I mean on their own. NO involvement from mum or dad management accept to provide them data, resources, hardware and information when requested.

To set them up for success the university and I trained them in decision making and problem solving techniques and how to work effectively in a team.

What happened was beyond all our expectations and shot to hell my over inflated view of how important I was! Firstly stubborn and persistent problems were resolved…quickly. The trust between employees and managers transformed. We identified significant improvement in self efficacy (self-belief), trust, mateship, identity and sense of belonging.

All because we trusted our people and respected them enough to fix their own problems. We treated them BIG.

Back to the driver and the dock lines. I realised by sorting out the drivers problem I was not only short changing him and treating him small but I was doing the same for myself and my business. My arrogance and inflated belief of how important I was denied me a rich, rewarding and equal relationship with him and his team mates

To conclude there is one other truly awesome result from our little experiment that I would like to share with you –discretionary effort. The driver who had trouble backing into docks because the lines were faded, went out with his work mates with cans of yellow spray paint and painted the lines for themselves… themselves. Historically a problem that no safety manager had any luck resolving was sorted out by the drivers within a week. How very cool

A few things I learnt on this journey of treating people BIG.

  • Our role as the keepers of people’s safety is a well-intentioned but severely limiting illusion
  • Don’t try to fix people –nobody likes that. They can fix themselves
  • You can’t create ownership you can only give it away
  • People are not employees or workers, they’re PEOPLE



  1. Hayden Greenshields Reply

    Hi Loren, great piece. Would it be possible to have a copy of this experiment done at the University of Southern Queensland? I would love to share it in future engagements.

    1. Loren Murray Reply

      Hi Hayden
      Thanks for the comment. In the next couple of weeks the USQ will post on their website the key results of the project and how you can get invoved in the project if you wish. If you would like to hear more about how the project was implemented please feel free to give me a call anytime, my contact details are on my Lync profile. Alternatively I am speaking at on 28th November at the Beyond Zero Harm: Human Factors Safety event at the Marriot Hotel in Melbourne. L

  2. Dave Christenson Reply

    Thank you Loren. I also would like to have a copy of this experiment’s paper. It is a great example of self-design emerging from leading adult learning. Your role as an enabler and learning environment creator is instructive, “To set them up for success the university and I trained them in decision making and problem solving techniques and how to work effectively in a team.” Replication of this transformational example might best progress in other places with these as foundational support. Specifics in the paper on this experiment will be very helpful. Very strong work!

  3. Jan Peeters Reply

    Hi Loren,

    Lately I have been thinking along these lines, working with a few colleagues who implement Lean and 6 Sigma projects, the experience is similar. (like safety there are many wrong ways to go about implementing Lean and 6 Sigma, these guys are able to get results by focussing on working with people rather than imposing processes)
    In Lean and 6 Sigma, sustained improvements come from the workfloor, thought up by the operators themselves, after being trained in some basic mental tools to structure collaboration, measurement, etc.

    One potential obstacle I see when going about this though, is that people at operator level only have limited ability to change their environmental factors, and these are not necessarily the right factors to change.
    You see this happen when safety is managed in silos, e.g. when an issue in flight operations is discovered, often flight crew procedures are changed (extra item on checklist, etc.) putting the burden at the end of the chain at operator level, while in fact the problem might be created by another department “upstream”.
    I suspect you get then are locally optimised solutions which add complexity at operator level to solve a problem which should have been addressed more efficiently upstream.

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