In 2017, Linde Engineering brought together a team of 14 men to oversee construction of an ethylene plant for an oil company on the Gulf Coast of Texas. It was a typical assignment for the project management arm of Linde, the industrial gases group: leading a consortium and supervising 2,500 workers, subcontracted to execute the construction plan.
Safety, as ever, was paramount. But this project was a test-bed for a completely different way of working that would use coaching techniques to underpin safety standards. To say the Linde managers were sceptical is an understatement. Safety manager Bruce Parnell, an outspoken Texan, recalls how he reacted to news that the team would go through a programme, devised by Linde and coaching group Performance Consultants International (PCI) in 2014, and based on the core skill of “active listening”.
“Everyone thought ‘This is never going to work. How are we going to get things done if we start asking people to do stuff rather than telling people to do stuff?’ . . . Historically speaking, the construction industry itself, in the Gulf Coast area, especially in the US, in order to get things done, you tell people what to do.”Mr Parnell was particularly doubtful about the mindset of his senior colleagues, including Michael Kostyshyn, the site quality assurance manager, born in Ukraine, who describes himself as a “passionate speaker”. During the first PCI training sessions, Mr Kostyshyn “found it impossible to keep my mouth shut”.
“I knew that approach wasn’t going to work too well,” Mr Parnell recalls. “I said ‘Michael K isn’t going to make it. His approach and his attitude isn’t going to work here on the Gulf Coast’, and I wouldn’t have bet 10 cents on him.”Changing behaviourLinde’s decision to use novel coaching methods to improve its safety record was not the result of any catastrophic failure.
It did, however, come in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, that had a profound impact on the same Gulf Coast region and increased pressure from Linde’s clients to enforce ever stricter standards.
Using traditional techniques, Linde had reached a plateau on safety and continued to experience small problems — skin punctures, falls — that are a sign of overall safety deficiencies. Kai Gransee, now a senior health and safety executive for Linde Engineering, says he and his team said to themselves, “we have all these processes in place, why do we continue to see these incidents?”In 2014, Mr Gransee persuaded Christian Bruch, chief executive of Linde Engineering, to try the coaching scheme as a way of changing overall behaviour.
Mr Bruch, in turn, believed the approach could yield a wider benefit. “For me, [the PCI training] was a pilot not only related to safety but more of a pilot around leadership . . .
The question was: if we can’t manage safety, how the heck are we going to manage our company.” If you really talk to people, if you really understand what they’re doing . . . yes, we have room for improvement Such thinking is not new. Paul O’Neill famously transformed the culture of Alcoa, the aluminium manufacturer, when he took over in 1987, by focusing on a target of zero injuries.
Beyond the safety area, companies increasingly encourage a “coaching” style of management that delegates more decision-making to front-line workers.In September 2017, Mr Gransee started to put the 14 managers at the Gulf Coast plant through a two-day course, run by PCI’s Jon Williams. At the time, safety at Linde, “was being managed and not led”, Mr Williams says. The programme was, essentially, a customised version of its general coaching method, built on insights developed by PCI’s co-founder, the late Sir John Whitmore. Using the technique, participants pose “powerful”, non-judgmental, open questions, listen to the answers, and nudge team members to take their own decisions about next steps. The 14 in turn acted as ambassadors, passing the skills down the chain to direct reports.
Real impactThe new approach led the team to question some of the fundamental ways they had worked. Abhinav Singhal, who had worked on the design of new plants, found it hard to shed his conviction that it was enough to incorporate safety measures in the blueprint. “I always was of the mindset that everything that we do is intrinsically safe, that nothing can go wrong [but after the training] I started realising that if you really talk to people, if you really understand what they’re doing, how they can improve upon themselves . . . that, yes, we have room for improvement.”The real impact was felt as they applied Linde’s “Lead Safe” programme. Sigi Schönhuber, another straight-talking site manager, recalls challenging a contractor working in a trench on the Texas site to show his work permit. Instead of using the old “rod and staff” approach and issuing a directive, Mr Schönhuber persuaded the worker to commit personally to carry his documents in future.
“Whenever I met that guy in the field, he asked me to check on his work permit, because he was so proud that he had all the documents in place,” he says. For many of the team members and contractors it was the first time that managers had actively discussed their work with them.
“A lot of these workers were never engaged by management and never had an opportunity to prove to management that they knew what they were doing,” says Mr Parnell. “[One guy] said he’d been out there in that business for 24 years and nobody ever asked him his opinion.”The number of monthly interactions between managers and workers using the new approach has nearly tripled from 11 per month to 30. In 2018, for the first time, Linde Engineering lost no time for injuries on any of its construction sites. The safety coaching is now being rolled out to other parts of the Linde group and Linde and PCI are offering it to third-party companies.
Mr Bruch says the success of the programme will also inform how Linde measures the cultural integration of its merger with Praxair, completed last year. Recommended AnalysisThe Big ReadNew Year, New You! The boom in executive coaching It is hard, though, to sustain such an initiative in an industry in constant change, where turnover of staff in the field runs at 5 to 10 per cent a month. In fact, in 2019, while the overall injury rate at Linde Engineering continued to fall, there were three lost-time injuries.
“You have every day to go out and demonstrate that [safety] behaviour,” Mr Bruch says. Rebecca Jones of Henley Business School, who evaluated a separate PCI assignment for staff at Sellafield, the UK’s nuclear reprocessing plant, says managers should use coaching techniques to improve their “long-term effective performance”. She cautions, however, that sometimes when leaders are coaching their own staff — people whose performance they may also have to assess — they “have to work much harder” to maintain a non-judgmental attitude.Linde’s involvement in the Texas assignment finished in May 2018 and the 14 have dispersed to other Linde sites from Germany to India, or even to other companies. But they have retained a tight group culture and commitment to encourage changes in behaviour. “We’re always on a mission,” says Mr Schönhuber, who now works to spread the approach at a facility in Kazakhstan, despite the language barrier.
They style themselves “The Group of 14” and keep in their on-site offices torch-shaped trophies as a symbol of the need to be coaches rather than commanders. Some describe the approach now as a “way of life” that they apply not only at work but at home.Even the hard-bitten Mr Parnell is ready to admit his doubts about Michael Kostyshyn were ill-founded. “That guy was an absolute miracle and proved me wrong in every sense,” he says. “And I was extremely proud of that.”
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