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"How did we kill this man?"

When his plant manager wrote those words on a blackboard, Cort Dial was in shock, trying to process the electrocution of a worker at the chemical plant where he was holding his first supervisory post. Mr. Dial held the hand of the dying man, comforting him, after the worker's crane had made contact with the plant's main power lines.

Now, the plant manager had gathered staff for a meeting, telling them they would not leave until the tough question he had put before them was answered. It took a while, as they went counterclockwise around the room, everyone asked to provide a reason, over and over again, with nothing satisfactory coming forth.

Mostly, people shifted blame onto the worker or professed not to know. "If we have to stay in here for weeks, we will," the plant manager said after three hours, allowing them a short break. "This meeting will not end until I understand how we killed this man."

After thinking hard about the question, Mr. Dial finally realized the truth. But he was too ashamed to admit it. The plant manager sensed his reticence and pummelled him with questions about whether he and other company supervisors had discussed the dangers of power lines and cranes. No, they hadn't. Instead, they had groused about how contractors weren't "staff," insisting they had to be kept away from the company's bathrooms and locker rooms because they were considered dirty and untrustworthy.

"We killed him," Mr. Dial finally admitted, "because he was a contractor."

That incident inspired Mr. Dial in the decades since to encourage higher productivity and greater plant safety by treating workers more humanely. As he boldly told a subsequent boss who was allowing lax practices: "I will not tolerate anyone in this plant doing anything that puts our people's health, safety or well-being at risk, regardless of his rank. That commitment is something I will not relinquish. Do you understand that about me?"

In the industries he works with – oil and chemical companies among them – the assumption is that workers could be hurt severely or even die in the course of a project. He insists the managers start with a different premise – that nobody will be hurt or killed – and turn that into reality.

In a pivotal speech to the executives at a firm where he worked, he set out three guiding principles we should all ponder.

1. It is unacceptable to harm people in the pursuit of business results. The company had "injury and incident" targets, which he called an admission that senior management believed people must be harmed for the company to do business. He warned that "the day was coming where society would no longer allow us to harm people in order to produce business results. We had better figure out soon how to produce those same results without harm to anyone or anything, or the public was going to revoke our right to operate."

2. Numerical injury goals may be commonplace for projects but actually have no place in the management of health and safety. The health and safety of employees is different from other aspects of the business, since when corporate management talks of numbers here, they are forgetting it's about people – living, human beings.

3. You can't measure what is most important to performance. "In the near future, health and safety, and performance management in general, would be much less about equipment, systems and processes and much more about leading and inspiring people," he writes in his book, Heretics to Heroes. Executives who can't make that shift will at some point find themselves redundant.

Consulting to a project in Bahrain, he found the workers were immigrants living in appalling conditions in the construction company's camps, accepting the horrible situation because they needed to send the money home to help their families. He persuaded the construction manager to shut the project down for a few weeks while conditions were improved. Asked what level of improvements were required, the manager, coached by Mr. Dial, responded: "When you're completely comfortable having your son or daughter stay in our camps, then you will have met our standards."

The extra cost to treat the employees well – fixing up the camp, improving the food, giving them proper time to eat lunch – drew senior management's attention, and the improvements were almost reversed. That is, until they realized the project was beating its timeline, was far more productive than any similar efforts and, as a result, far more economical. As well: No serious injuries. An inspired, engaged work force paid dividends on that project and many other Mr. Dial has stage managed.

Many managers will scoff at his idealism. But it is based on practical examples, which he shares in the book, stories of his experiences and, more broadly, lessons learned over the years, from childhood through the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon spill. The book is enthralling, dramatic and insightful – a winner.


Marketer Michael Alden explains how making small changes – 5% More (Wiley, 190 pages, $30) – will produce extraordinary results.

Jobs to be Done (Amacom, 210 pages, $33.95) by consultants Stephen Wunker, Jessica Wattman and David Farber builds on Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen's celebrated concept to offer a road map for customer-centred innovation.

Marine turned corporate executive Ken Marlin shares 11 key battlefield principles that can help your company in The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street (St. Martin's Press, 231 pages, $37.99).

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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