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WARNING: The content of this column contains another sports-safety metaphor!

At a recent informal gathering of mine leadership, the discussion turned to a retrospective assessment of the company’s performance over 2015 and (in turn) a predictive analysis of expectations in 2016.

I suspect that similar discussions occur during the December-January time frame across the country.

While optimistic about the upcoming year, several described expected issues in 2016 as hurdles and at least one characterized a collective response to the hurdles as “jumping over the hurdles.” That phrase stuck with me and later (as is my nature) I began to overanalyze it. Here is the metaphor.

Track and Field was an important part of my life when we measured such athletic accomplishments in yards, feet, and inches. (I’m dating myself.)

But one thing I learned early was that one does not jump over hurdles. A track athlete runs hurdles. It may seem like a subtle difference, and it may have been lost in the minds of the group, but there may be a lesson for the rest of us.

Certainly the hurdles placed on the track for a competitive race are obstacles, but the hurdler learns that the effect of the hurdles must be mitigated in order to cross the finish line ahead of the field. The hurdler has the advantage of knowing the exact height and placement of each hurdle.

So a hurdler doesn’t run up to the hurdle, jump over and continue to the next. The successful hurdler applies a strategy that coordinates speed, stride and pace into an effective rhythm.

This minimizes the impact of the hurdles upon the overall speed of the runner. With practice (repetition) the hurdler develops a pace with little variation between the speed crossing each hurdle and his or her speed between the hurdles.

Similarly, leaders (whether in safety, production, maintenance or any of the other support services) are responsible for achieving certain goals or objectives – a finish line of sorts.

They may be expressed in budget terms, in TRIR, in quality terms, in production stats, or as uptime/downtime figures.

Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, one can expect a number of obstacles or hurdles to occur with a potential negative impact on achieving the objective(s). As with the hurdler, if those obstacles can be mitigated, the effect can be minimized. So how can the hurdler help?

  • Understand the track; define the path. How far away is the finish line (objective)? Identify and remove known hurdles (obstacles) in advance. Use experience, advice and other tools to predict likely hurdles that might develop.
  • Develop a strategy. Treat the process of achieving the objective more as a marathon than a sprint. Establish a pace or rhythm. Develop contingency plans and alternatives that can be deployed quickly and mitigate the effects of the onset of an unplanned hurdle.
  • Plan and Practice. Share the strategy so that all affected personnel know when and how to respond to an emergent hurdle. If possible, practice or drill to the plan.

Thank you for enduring another sports-safety metaphor. As I stated earlier, these thoughts may be the result of an over-ripe imagination and an abundance of over analysis.

But maybe, just maybe, there are some other former hurdlers who understand.