Achieve Effective Process Safety Management

"Felt leadership" plays a crucial role in ensuring success

By Brian Rains, DuPont Sustainable Solutions

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After fatal industrial incidents in Seveso, Italy; Bhopal, India; and Texas City, Texas, chemical makers resolved to improve process safety management (PSM) to prevent similar events from happening. And yet this year, we witnessed an explosion and fire at a fertilizer storage facility in Texas, even though the company had safety regulations in place. That disaster underscores that PSM systems only function effectively if they're adequate and implemented rigorously. Ensuring this happens isn't just the job of the SHE (safety, health and environment) manager but also depends on the company leadership. These executives' commitment to safety should be obvious to every employee — and it's what makes the difference between a firm that pays lip service to process safety and one that achieves process safety excellence.

The Baker Panel report into the disaster at BP's Texas City refinery highlights this point (see: "Panel Blasts BP's Safety Practices"). Five of the panel's ten recommendations directly address leadership requirements. One of the panel members, Paul V. Tebo, former DuPont vice president of SHE, went so far as to state that the fundamental, underlying issue at BP Texas City was "leadership, leadership, leadership."

Chemical makers rely on PSM to reduce risks with the goal of eliminating any significant process incidents. Managing these risks is one of the key responsibilities and challenges every company in the chemical industry must accept. Effective PSM ultimately is the responsibility of senior executives because that's where the buck stops. Success in PSM directly relates to the quality of decision-making by and within the organization. Leadership is all about influencing and improving the quality of this decision-making. The approach leaders follow to ensure highest-quality decision-making by the organization in managing existing operational risks is what we at DuPont call "felt leadership." It's a necessary ingredient in successful PSM implementation and execution.

The term frequently is mentioned at PSM conferences and in informal conversations as a quality that management must demonstrate if PSM implementation is to succeed. It's been used to describe a style of leadership that's also necessary in complex chemical processes and operations. Felt leadership can be sensed or experienced rather than just heard or seen. It suggests leadership with passion, authenticity and even humility.

Interestingly, DuPont coined the term more than 20 years ago. Then, its context was very different. In fact, at the time felt leadership wasn't used directly for safety at all.

Back in 1990, a group of plant managers (including me) had been formed into a body called the "Plant Managers Board." We had a specific task: to identify best practices related to "high performing work systems," or HPWS for short. At the time, HPWS were described as "high involvement systems of accomplishing work in which all employees have developed the capability to connect with and drive the quality of business results to be world class."

The board consisted of approximately ten plant managers from all regions of the world. Some didn't have much experience and others were seasoned veterans. Some managed very large plants while others ran small ones. Some were engineers and others had diverse educational backgrounds. We came together face-to-face at least quarterly for about two years. And we almost always visited different operating sites to observe and analyze. Sometimes the facilities were DuPont's. At other times, we visited external facilities such as the Honda car assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio.

After a visit to a DuPont facility in rural Illinois in 1991, our group met in a conference room and attempted to synthesize our collective observations into something usable and concise — something we could package and leverage across DuPont operations. We filled sheet after sheet of paper until we literally covered the four walls of the room. We had seen and observed so much that there were almost too much data.

Then, one of our members, who later rose to become senior vice president of operations at DuPont, took the floor and articulated in simple terms what came to be known as the "six attributes of HPWS." The first was "vision, mission and strategic intent known by all." The second was "committed and dedicated leadership 'felt' within the organization," or simply "felt leadership."

To clarify the meaning of felt leadership, we set out to define what it should include. Our board wanted leaders who could create vision and energy, stretch goals and invite positive pushback. We wanted leaders who were results- and output-oriented and could make every employee in the organization feel a sense of purpose.

We then went on to develop a self-assessment tool that senior managers could use to help ensure they would act in a way that would make them visible and their leadership felt by the entire organization. We asked them to reflect on the following questions:

• Do we, as leaders, have a clear vision for change based on the needs of all stakeholders?
• Are we visible, knowledgeable and open with people?
• Do we value upgrades from anywhere?
• Do we continually set objectives that require people to develop and grow the skills needed to move toward the vision?
• Do we engage people in a process that builds accountability, willingness and confidence to act in an empowered way?

As helpful and appropriate as these tools were, and continue to be, the subject of PSM leadership must be brought down to an individual, and even personal, level. Many companies strive for felt leadership but don't know how to implement it, particularly with regard to PSM.

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