Thursday, July 28, 2011

Safety Reflections from China

Workplace Safety
I returned from my first visit to China early last week. I was invited to present a 2-day workshop on Lean Safety. Prior to my departure the consulting firm who had invited me sent pre-workshop questionnaires to the registrants. One of the questions asked them to provide information to the presenter about their working situation. One of the registrants responded to this question by stating that "Safety is not a priority in the Chinese culture." To explore this topic before I departed for China I posed this question on a Linked-In safety group discussion board. The results were emotional and mixed. Responses ranged from agreement with the statement and referencing a culture of blame and punishment as the root cause. While others noted that every country, as they went through their industrialization phase, had the same issues that China faces today. They also pointed out that it will take years and the combined efforts of the Chinese government and industry to ensure workplace safety is viewed as important in the Chinese culture.

In our global economy safety problems are not restricted to the country where they occur. A company’s safety reputation can be tarnished globally by a problem at any one of their global sites. The Internet and the many social networking tools available to all of us spread news, either good or bad, at light speed across the globe. For example, some of the shine was removed from the Apple corporate logo when a series of suicides and a fire lead to multiple deaths at their facilities in China.

The 19 people who attended my two-day Lean Safety workshop were all from large companies - most of them international firms headquartered outside of China. These firms care about the safety of the employees in their facilities. They have brought to their Chinese plants a safety culture developed outside of China and are positively impacting workplace safety in China. This was witnessed by the fact that all of the attendees were safety or operational professionals who were there to learn. They were great students who fully participated in the exercises, asked insightful questions and were a joy to teach. I left the 2-day event confident that workplace safety will continue to gain importance in China. Their attitudes about safety convinced me of that. Facilitating this workshop was a wonderful experience that ranks near the top of my consulting experiences since I began my consulting career at the start of 2010.

Personal Safety
When planning a trip to China and discovering that your doctor feels inoculations to prevent typhoid, polio, hepatitis, and a few others serious illnesses are a good idea it causes you to reflect on a different type of safety - personal safety. You can plan to prevent these unwanted medical experiences but travel is filled with new unexpected experiences - the primary reason I love travel. It exposes me to people and all aspects of their culture that are different from mine. Before the trip I had few if any preconceived notions about the Chinese people. While there I found them to be friendly, helpful and hard working. Evident were growing signs of westernization - clothing styles, restaurants (KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, etc.) and a budding middle class strolling around western type shopping centers where they could spend their new found wealth. But if you looked deeper you could find the cultural differences. At a Dunkin Donut outlet the donut choices reflect a culture clash or maybe a cultural compromise. Along with some standard offerings were donuts topped with dried pork and seaweed or Bonito (fish) flakes! This meshing of cultures will continue as the Chinese continue to experiment and develop their society into something new or at least different from what it is today. I love the Mark Twain quote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Everyone should travel for travel is personal growth.

Transportation Safety
Before departing for China I had followed news stories about a new high speed rail service between Shanghai and Beijing - the two cities we would visit in China. It began service just six days before our departure and six days after our arrival in Shanghai we were seated in a new train going 310 kilometers an hour speeding toward our destination - Beijing. My wife had had some safety concerns about this travel option due to its newness and the speed of the train. Earlier this year we had taken a torturous 19 hour Amtrak train journey from Chicago to New Orleans and I was anxious to compare the two rail services. So in the end she agreed and we booked our round trip seats. The motion sickness inducing ride on Amtrak could not be compared to the ride on the Shanghai to Beijing high speed line. It was smoother than riding in a car or an airplane. No comparison. The old high speed train option between Shanghai and Beijing was a 10 hour overnight trip. The new cycle time was just short of 5 hours! About a week after we returned home there was a train accident in China. It was reported that many deaths and injuries occurring when lightning struck a train, causing a power loss, and a second train ran into the rear of the stalled train. Obviously train safety needs to be improved. Smoother and faster is not better if it is unsafe.

If you wanted to assess the safety culture of a country observing the driving habits of the inhabitants is an unproven and unscientific method that could be used. I felt qualified to use it for the form of transport used most often on our trip was taxis. With around 50,000 taxis patrolling the streets of both cites we visited it was a convenient and reasonably priced method of transport. During the first ride I noticed the taxi drivers, rather than wait in a lane that slows or stops, immediately swing a front fender in between two cars to their left or right. In turn the rear car that is now being slowed by the taxis will move into the next lane using the same technique. Sitting in the front seat of a taxi watching this weaving ballet of traffic caused me to think the Chinese are risk takers. They and their government are trying to move forward, changing themselves and their economy without clearly marked lanes to guide them. And even when the lanes are marked, the taxis and the Chinese people may not follow them. They, in the spirit of continuous improvement, are all trying to find the path of least resistance as they change their country at a pace that is almost unimaginable. It was a wonderful experience witnessing the incredible energy and excitement of the changes taking place and I look forward to future visits to assess their progress.