By Randy K. Logsdon
A major soft drink manufacturer once adopted the slogan “the pause that refreshes.” Television and magazine ads depicted young people taking a moment from their busy lives to relax and “refresh” while consuming the soft drink.
Going back a few more years, some will remember that a competing soft drink company suggested through advertising and even on the product label specific times of the day to interrupt the routine and enjoy their beverage (10:00, 2:00 and 4:00).
Despite the self-serving nature of the ad campaigns there is some wisdom in stopping for a few moments periodically to refresh. The scheduled morning break and the afternoon break are institutionalized concepts that are practiced in countless organizations. More and more companies recognize the value in promoting both structured and spontaneous stretch breaks.
Stop Work Authority
There is another type of interruption that is gaining in popularity despite some mild controversy and concern – stop work authority.
Interest in the stop work concept gathered some momentum a number of years ago when a major auto manufacturer depicted an assembly line employee’s authority to stop production for reason. The focus was on ensuring the quality of the product, but stopping is also quite applicable to safety concerns.
From the safety perspective, the concept is quite simple. Each and every employee is given the authority to stop operations (production, maintenance, whatever) if that employee recognizes or believes that there is a safety concern.
Don’t we really want our employees to stop and take corrective action before a situation escalates to an injury or property damage incident? When conditions change (expected or unexpected) does it not make sense to stop momentarily and reassess the risks before proceeding? As is often the case, the transition from concept to application can be difficult.
Most employees are production oriented. Our hiring processes screen for those attributes and the workplace culture can reinforce the predisposition toward production. We all understand that production pays the bills and ensures our paycheck.
We celebrate production records, and bonuses are awarded to those who surpass production goals. So there just may be a reluctance to (figuratively) pull the stop cord.
In that same culture, there may also be disincentives to exercising stop work authority. A single experience of negative results (even someone else’s experience) will likely generate second thoughts about taking that step the next time. Again, there may be a reluctance to pull the stop cord.
In some organizations that reluctance is addressed in writing, even to the extent of providing each employee a “stop work authority card” signed by a senior operations manager (general manager, VP-operations, superintendent, even CEO). It’s like a get out of jail free card.
There is another (perhaps more proactive) approach to combatting this reluctance. It involves subtle differences in the words we use to encourage a beneficial stoppage.
For instance, the terms “stop,” “pause,” and “timeout” may have the same general meaning, but can be applied differently to describe more specific (situational) behaviors in a work context. For example, while stop may have a broad implication of quitting and withdrawing, pause implies a brief interruption with the intent to resume.
The terminology we apply in giving direction has meaning too. “I want you to stop and reassess the risk if you are not comfortable with your safety when you change the drive belts on the conveyor.”
“Comfortable” opens the door to rationalization and the potential for inaction when action is required. Substituting the word “confident” raises the bar, eliminating much of the indecision associated with “comfort.”
“I want you to stop and reassess the risk if you are not confident of your safety when you change the drive belts on the conveyor.”
On an even broader level, the context with which we frame the entire concept of stopping work for safety can be either passive or active. Would you prefer to offer the authority to stop work for safety or would you rather that your employees take the responsibility to stop work for safety.
“Authority” tells me that I can take action at my discretion without fear of reprisal. In contrast, “responsibility” means that I am expected to stop work if there is a safety issue. It’s not my choice. If I fail to act, there may be negative repercussions.
Distinction in Terms
Initially, many may not appreciate the distinction in terms. To help ensure the success of such an initiative, it’s important for everyone concerned to have a clear understanding of the meaning and the intent of these terms and the performance expectations.
When those expectations are met, they should be reinforced – especially if the anticipated safety issue fails to materialize. The conversation (with true sincerity) may sound something like this:
You stopped that job because you thought that there was a danger of Bill falling. As it turns out, Bill was actually tied off and wasn’t really in danger. You just couldn’t see that from where you were. I know it’s difficult to make that stop work call, but you made the right decision. You weren’t confident of Bill’s safety and you stopped him. That’s exactly what I expect you do. Who knows, next time the situation may be more critical. It could save someone’s life – even mine. So thanks for keeping your eyes open and making the right call.
And wouldn’t that be a pause that refreshes in itself?