CEO Lessons from D.C.’s Metrorail Shutdown
Last month’s unprecedented safety-related shutdown of D.C.’s entire Metrorail, the nation’s second-busiest subway, caused traffic snarls throughout the city and disrupted hundreds of thousands of commuters. But once we look past the inconvenience and disruption, we find an extraordinary leadership lesson.
Even though he knew that the shutdown would anger many commuters, Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld put safety above all else. Shutting down an entire metro system in one of America’s largest markets in the name of a core value is a tremendous example of leadership courage. The Washington Post noted: “Wiedefeld’s response to the cable problem may have signaled something bigger about his approach to the job. The extraordinary shutdown showed that he’s willing to do things differently.”
In my experience, on-the-job accidents and injuries are not spread out evenly throughout the year; they come in waves. They may start small, but they will eventually crest into a tsunami that overwhelms the leadership and front lines of the company. In order to avoid crippling safety failures in your company, you’ll need to spot the red flags, a.k.a. leading indicators. If you only review lagging indicators, you’ll become proficient at cleaning up the mess but not at preventing it in the first place. These leading indicators are things that set the stage for accidents, like a “near miss”.
If you’re currently experiencing safety problems, and nearly every company at some point will, dig deeper. Look for defects along the chain― in leadership deficiencies, short cuts, deferred maintenance, hiring, orientation or training problems, or unclear understanding of company processes among employees. Even if the wave of safety problems results in only minor injuries or costs, ignore severity and keep digging. Always remember that severity is simply a function of whether or not you got lucky.
Sometimes it will become necessary to shock the system, like Paul Wiedefeld did in Washington D.C. This means taking an unconventional action, one that is not a part of your every-day (or every-year) repertoire. The shock is a quick and aggressive hit that cannot be mistaken for a part of your normal safety function. The team is seeing you sweat, and they are going to sweat as hard, if not harder, than you until the issues are addressed fully. That’s what world-class organizations do, big or small.
My own company experienced a wave of safety failures in a short period of time. They all seemed unrelated―different incidents, different operating units, different root causes. There wasn’t time to connect the dots. We needed to act fast. There would be time for reflection later.
To shock the system, we announced that we were shutting the company down―that if we could not execute safely then we would not execute at all. All of a sudden, we had everyone’s attention. Shutting down? What about my job? How can I fix that?
The mere gesture of shutting down operations to get the team realigned is a serious and bold statement that leaves no doubt that management is serious about safety as a core value. While we did not close the company (we are not foolish), we did in fact shut everyone out from their jobs until they attended a mandatory meeting. We limited the size of the meetings to ten people – so we conducted multiple concurrent sessions. There was no lecture. We showed our team the data. It is one thing to describe an accident and another to be confronted with photos and forced to react―to discuss what went wrong and to personally renew their commitment to prevention. We let the team talk. We made them personally own the solution. After all, our front line employees generally have the answers, if we’d only listen.
This type of “shock and awe” plan must be part of every leader’s toolkit. While the examples in this article are safety related, the same concepts work for any part of your business, such as production or service failures, customer dissatisfaction or loss, etc. When things are off track in any part of your business and your normal approach is not generating results fast enough, be ready with and aggressive and extraordinary action plan.
While the “shock and awe” plan may be controversial at first, your stakeholders will recognize over time that you are leading with a nonnegotiable set of core values. Clearly, Mr. Wiedefeld put safety above of scheduled operations. While this may have been unpopular with commuters, Wiedefeld earned the respect of his most important constituency – his team. Jackie Jeter, president of one of Washington’s biggest transit authority unions said: “Previous managers, to be perfectly honest, I don’t think gave a crap about the safety culture . . . They cared about safety on paper,” Jeter said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I think that everyone was impressed by what Wiedefeld did . . . He had to know he was going to get some backlash. But it was more important to be safe. It was more important to ‘put my money where my mouth is.’ I was very proud of him.”