February 21, 2022 | Marcus Miller

Controlling Risk: Lessons Learned from Astronaut Jim Wetherbee

controlling risk

Do you know the difference between controlling risk and managing risk?

I had the distinct pleasure of attending Jim Wetherbee’s keynote presentation about controlling risk at the Global TapRooT® Summit three years ago. As you may know, aside from being an incredible keynote speaker, Jim is the sole five-time Space Shuttle commander.

One of the best lessons I learned from Jim is that there is a difference between managing risk and controlling risk.

Most organizations do a great job of managing risk and dedicating resources toward it. They determine risk by analyzing the probability of something happening and the severity of the consequences. If an unwanted outcome has a high probability of happening and the consequences are severe, management will reduce risk by applying rules, procedures, training, etc. This is very important in reducing the risk and keeping their people safe. Equally important is controlling risk. And this is where I would challenge organizations to analyze how well they control risk.

Jim helped me understand that controlling risk is just as important as managing risk. People on the frontlines are targets. The risk from hazards is not just theoretical. Theories can’t kill people, but real hazards can. Managing risk to an “acceptable level” isn’t good enough when we are the target! Rules and procedures help keep us safe from anticipated hazards, but what happens when something unexpected occurs that the rules and procedures don’t cover? How do we stay safe from unanticipated hazards? In the real world, hazards are always present. We must be able to defend ourselves from the unanticipated hazards that cross our paths each and every day. We need more than just rules and procedures. Organizations cannot anticipate every eventuality.

In Jim’s book, Controlling Risk in a Dangerous World, he shares 30 principle-based techniques for operational excellence that are much more adaptive than rules and procedures.

They can be applied when confronted with situations that weren’t anticipated and, therefore, no rules exist.

Jim uses the following example to illustrate the importance of adopting these principle-based techniques. Let’s say an organization finds that the use of cell phones while driving company cars has led to several accidents. The organization determines the best way to keep their people safe is to create a new rule. No cell phone use while driving. And I’m sure by following this rule, drivers will prevent future accidents.

However, wouldn’t it be better if the workers could prevent accidents caused by all distractions, not merely distractions caused by cell phones? That is where the principle-based techniques come in. Instead of merely telling the drivers not to use their cell phones, the drivers could be trained and positively encouraged to follow the principles of defensive driving so they can predict and avoid all distractions and dangerous situations. The principles are open, adaptive, and comprehensive. They supplement the hard rules that organizations implement to keep people safe. In this example, the organization not only prevents accidents caused by cell phones but also prevents accidents by giving the drivers the wider principle of defensive driving. It’s a much larger safety net. Defensive driving helps the drivers recognize and eliminate all distractions, observe and avoid potential road hazards, anticipate the action of other drivers, and help them stay out of dangerous situations. It covers exponentially more situations than cell phone usage.

One principle that stuck out to me was Jim’s management principle, Balance Confidence with Humility.

Jim explains that it is important not to blame outward. It is better to take responsibility even if it’s not your fault. That covers all situations where blame could derail the teamwork needed to respond and fix issues. In other words, blame becomes a non-issue. When you take responsibility, it allows the team to move forward without fear of being blamed or trying to deflect fault. Everyone can move forward quickly because blame is removed. That improves teamwork, honesty, and relationships. It makes the team more effective because they are focused on the problem and don’t have to try and dodge blame.

I also liked Jim’s thoughts on divergence.

Divergence is when the work starts to veer from its normal path. Something starts happening that is different than what is desired. It causes an abnormal situation that increases risk. With hindsight, it is easy to look back and say, “Man, we should have seen that coming.” But when you are in the heat of the moment and trying to get a job done, it’s not always easy for the frontline workers to recognize when things start to go wrong. Jim talks about ensuring that frontline workers can recognize signs of divergence. A few easily recognizable signs include the workers finding themselves or coworkers in a hurry, taking a shortcut, or being distracted. It was not anyone’s fault; they were just trying to get the job done because something unexpected occurred. They were trying to be team players and good workers. Unfortunately, at times these behaviors will lead to an incident. Tragic events will be prevented if the workers have the skills to recognize the signs of divergence and know the proper way to respond to stop it.

If you are interested in a deep dive into controlling risk by applying principle-based techniques, I highly recommend Jim’s book.

I also recommend registering now and attending the 2022 Global TapRooT® Summit May 2-6 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where you will learn important lessons from multiple keynote speakers and other leaders.

The Summit is accompanied by a guarantee and will help you become better at what you do to keep your people safe and business in a continual state of improvement. If you need help registering yourself or your team (great discounts on multiple Summit attendees!), please contact us at 865.539.2139.

Hope to see you in May at the Summit!

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