The Numbers Trap

By Eric Nickless                                               Marathon Petroleum; Illinois Refining Division

Numbers are very important to every aspect of our lives. Everything in life is measured by numbers. Your address has numbers so you can receive your mail delivery and, find you in case of emergency. Numbers help us keep track of all sorts of things like ball game scores, bank accounts, test scores, shoe size, shoe price, groceries, height and weight; everything has a number attached to it. We check prices on vehicles and make sure they are competitively priced. We do the same with groceries, clothes, shoes, and electronics. Almost everything is attached to a number. We compare test scores to see where little Johnny or Jackie measure up, and where they have room for improvement so we can focus on that area and help them to succeed.

Our BBS process is no different; we collect data from good quality observations to see where we have problem behaviors, such as not wearing ear protection. Then we look at the reasons for the behavior. Are the ear plugs we supply uncomfortable? Are they not readily available? Is it a lack of training or is it just not “cool” to wear them. When we figure out the problem, we concentrate our efforts and recourses to solving the problem. Through proper training, expressing the importance of hearing conservation, making them more accessible or purchasing another type, we work toward solving the problem. If we identify something in need of repair or replacement, we move the resources to solve that problem also.  

If we get improper data, by chasing high numbers, we skew the very data that protects us! We may be looking at something else that is really not a problem at all, and not seeing the real problems.

Our whole world is competitive; we all strive to be the best, but high numbers may not always be the key to success. You may have the best time on the cross country course, but if you cut a corner along the way, you lose. All your hard efforts and preparation are wasted. I would rather only finish or place in the race and know it was a genuine effort, than to win knowing I had to cheat to do it. If you win the NASCAR race but are disqualified for suspension violations, all your money, time and efforts are wasted. Not to mention you have let your crew and fans down, and if you lose them, your sponsors will follow.

It is the same if we get caught in the numbers trap. We feel the competitive urge to pump out observations and begin to lose the quality of them. The conversations that take place are replaced by just writing them up or entering them on the computer without any real interaction. Or, worse yet, we “pencil whip” them to meet expectations.

Then we are left to chase false data, exposing ourselves and others to unidentified risks. We have met expectations, satisfied the drive for numbers, but then we have accidents and injuries. We lose our fans (good observers) and sponsors (employee ownership through management support) because they think the process does not work. If we are encouraging high numbers we are missing the concept and benefit that comes with a good observation.

If we as employees and owners of the observation process don’t participate, we are committing the same crime.  Let’s don’t get caught in the numbers trap. Instead we should focus on the one on one observation with personal conversation that has served us so well in the past. We should all participate by doing observations. Please look out for your fellow coworkers and yourself, and do a quality observation today!

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