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When 95% Success Can Still Lead to Failure

Last week, while finishing up a two-day maintenance outage at work, I was exhausted.  I was about to get myself ready to head home when I saw something in a co worker's office that caught my attention.  He had an 18" adjustable (often called Crescent) wrench on his bookcase that was missing the movable jaw and adjusting worm gear.  I picked it up and grinned.  My coworker said he was disappointed that he couldn't find economical replacement parts allowing the wrench to be repaired for less than buying new.

I stood there, looking at him, exhausted from 15 hours at work, with the wrench in my hand, and said "I feel just like this wrench, 95% here, but completely worthless."  It then dawned on me the significance of the joke so I asked him if I could keep the wrench.  He was glad to have one less piece of junk in his office so he said "Sure."

All weekend long I thought about the broken wrench and why only 5% of it missing made it useless, and how that compared to so several activities that I participate with at work including:  Safety, Quality, and Environmental Compliance.  Each of these activities truly demands 100% effort, since skating by 5% of the time can easily lead to injury/death, lost customers, and huge fines.  Throughout my 20 year career, I have noticed all three of these aspects of work increase in their impact on daily business, ten-fold.  This isn't saying that they were ignored, but rather the accumulative emphasis year-in and year-out has led to a cultural shift in the workplace.  Back in the 70's and 80's it was common for people to look the other way when it came to chemical spills, unsafe working conditions, and inconsistent quality.


 The competitiveness of the world economy made it all but impossible to be a manufacturer without control over your processes.  This was certainly the case in the US automotive industry during the late 1970's and early 1980's when Japanese automakers were delivering a more reliable product due to higher safety standards.  Bit by bit, quality systems were generated that led to a internationally accepted set of guidelines we refer to now as ISO or QS.

Safety compliance has come on strong during my twenty year career.  People used to say that it was impossible to prevent "all" accidents.  In a practical sense, maybe this is true, but admitting it is a sure-fire way to decrease your effort from 100% to a deadly 95%.  The incident pyramid on the left shows an example of the rough statistics of 300,000 unsafe work acts and how they can result in near misses, recordable injuries, lost workday cases, and eventually a fatality.  300,000 may seem like a huge number, but if you take a moment to reflect on all of the small tasks done between getting out of the shower in the morning and driving to work, you will see how they all add up.  Do you still think that 95% is a good rate?  This illustration shows that a 99.997% safety rate can still create a fatality. 

Just last year, the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster brought to light how quickly a mistake can turn into an environmental calamity, not to mention a workplace safety event.  How many oil platforms are there operating in the world's oceans.  How many different tankers are taking on crude from filling platforms and terminals?  Is 95% enough for your hometown or beachfront?  I don't think so.

We aren't in school, looking for the A+, we are working everyday to get the job done.  Do you want to be the one interviewed on TV about how your 5% led to a huge spill.  Are you looking to put your livelihood on the line for 95% quality in the goods you help produce?  Do you even know how it would feel to be at your co worker's funeral, looking their spouse in the eye, and telling them how sorry you were that a 5% chance took someone away for ever?

from  My office floor
I am going to keep this goofy broken wrench on my wall at work.  It is going to remind me of everything I need to do, not just for me, but for the coworker next to me, the person operating equipment built with our product, and the neighbors who we share the same earth with.  Sounds hokey?  Do the math.  Just like an old crusty engineering professor of mine use to always say "Garbage analysis yields garbage results, if you want to believe garbage, poke yourself in the eye with a sharp stick and you can convince yourself of any lie."


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