The 19th century railroad baron Cornelius Vanderbilt once claimed that he turned down every new idea the first time it was pitched to him. His rationale: "I figured that if the idea or man behind the idea was any good, he would come back to me with the same idea again." Vanderbilt wasn't just blowing smoke. One day, a Vanderbilt employee named George Westinghouse proposed the idea of using air brakes to stop trains. Vanderbilt threw him out of his office. This time the tactic backfired. Westinghouse never did come back to Vanderbilt. He quit and formed his own company - and ultimately made millions on air brakes.
Now I'm no George Westinghouse. But I do have some things in common with him. One of them is a career in the railroad industry. In that capacity, I've pitched my share of safety ideas. Unfortunately, none of them proved as lucrative as air brakes. Still, a lot of my ideas were good and important. And, like Westinghouse's were, many of my ideas were met with resistance from the executives.
But unlike Westinghouse, I never quit and set up shop on my own. I stayed and fought through the resistance and got my ideas adopted. Along the way, I've gained some insight into coming up with and then pitching ideas for safety improvements inside a company. Here are some suggestions.
Where Have All the Ideas Gone?
Some people say that there aren't as many great ideas as there used to be. I think that's a bunch of baloney. There are lots of great ideas out there just ready to be plucked from the air. Standing in the way of progress is not the lack of ideas but the unwillingness to listen. We need to close our mouths and open our hearts and minds. As Ann Lander's father Abe Friedman told her, "You never learn anything while you're talking."
Accordingly, one of the best ways to come up with ideas is to just seek out your workers and listen to what they have to say. After all, these are the people you're trying to protect. If you want to know how to do that better, why in the world wouldn't you ask them for advice? Workers usually understand the problems and have the answers you're looking for; the problem is that not all safety professional bother to ask them for help.
Once you come up with - or identify - the ideas, you need to sell them. Let's talk about how.
Option 1: Appeal to the Pocketbook
Quite often, the reason that safety is such a hard sell is that it involves an investment in time and money. But remember this. Ultimately, not investing in safety is more costly. Incidents and accidents don't just come with a human cost; they inflict tremendous financial costs on the company. This is something safety professionals need to keep in mind when pitching their ideas.
Whenever I read in the newspaper of some horrible tragedy that might have been avoided through some safety application, I cut out the clipping and sent it to my boss, the railroad president. The clipping was just a reminder that in the long run safety is not simply a cost but a real potential for tremendous savings.
Option 2: Let Critics "Invent" the Idea
If the above approach doesn't work for you, you might want to consider Benjamin Franklin's strategy for selling a new idea. They say Ben Franklin was a genius. But he wasn't always the most popular man of his day. A lot of Ben's contemporaries who never had an original idea in their lives probably resented his creativity. (Or perhaps the males among them simply envied Ben for his way with the ladies, which few could match.)
Ideas came easily to Benjamin Franklin. His biggest problem was selling those ideas. So, genius that he was, Franklin developed a cunning approach for overcoming resistance to a new idea. He would intentionally present his idea rather weakly and suggest that it might not have much merit. A few days later, he would present a problem, one that could be solved using the idea he had presented a few days before. Then someone else would "think of" that idea as the solution. To complete the charade, Ben would argue lamely against the solution and then finally "give in" and accept it. Often the other party, once hooked like a fish on the line, would work long hours to prove the merit of "his" idea.
Of course, Ben Franklin possessed the qualities of modesty and altruism. He just knew the idea was good and wanted to make sure it was adopted and didn't care who took credit. To follow Ben Franklin's approach, you must possess the same qualities. You must surrender ownership and allow someone else to take credit for the idea. But if the reward is saving lives and preventing injuries, this is a sacrifice that I believe most safety professionals are willing to make.
If you pursue safety solutions as a business venture, then perhaps the best approach for you is to turn your ideas into products and sell them, as George Westinghouse did. But if your goal is to find and implement safety solutions to improve the conditions in your workplace, and you're finding it difficult to get management support, then try Benjamin Franklin's strategy. After all, in our business, it's not the credit for the idea that's important. What's important is whether or not the idea succeeds in keeping people safe.
JOKE OF THE WEEK
Heaven Can Wait
A safety guy died and reported to the pearly gates. An intern angel filling in for St. Peter checked the safety guy's dossier and grimly said, "Ah, you're in safety; you're in the wrong place."
So the man was cast down to Hell. Pretty soon, the safety guy became gravely dissatisfied with the level of safety in Hell.
He set about organizing work crews to improve the environmental conditions and ergonomics to conform to the latest regulations. After a while, the underworld had air conditioning, flush toilets and escalators, and the safety guy was becoming pretty popular among the demons.
One day, God called Satan up on the telephone and asked, "So, how's it going down there in Hell?"
Satan laughed and replied, "Hey, things are going great. We've got air conditioning and flush toilets and escalators, and there's no telling what ideas this safety guy is going to come up with next!"
God was aghast. "What? You've got a safety representative? That's a mistake; he should never have gotten down there! Send him back up here!!!"
"No way," Satan said. "I like having a safety rep on the staff and I'm keeping him!"
God was as angry as he had ever been, "This is not the way things are supposed to work and you know it! You send him back up here or I'll sue!"
Satan laughed uproariously, "Yeah, right. And just where are YOU going to get a lawyer?"
Ralph B. White
Safety and Maintenance
Smith Industries, Midland Texas
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