Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Notes From the Ukraine

Before I describe my visit to the Ukraine I would like to inform you of a new feature of my blog posts. It is called “What were they thinking?” For my first installment I would like to talk about a few features of the Boeing 777 airplane on which I flew to and from London on my trip to the Ukraine. My first gripe is the location of the remote control used to operate the seat back entertainment screen. Some engineer decided it was a good idea to locate the remote control in a recessed pocket on the top of the right armrest with the controls facing up so that when you put an elbow on the armrest you inadvertently change the volume or turn on the reading light. And while I am on the topic of airplane armrests why did they decide to use hard plastic material with inner edges so sharp they cut into your forearm until all blood flow to your hands has ceased? Even more troublesome is the airplane center luggage compartments which are located above the five seats across configuration in the center of the Boeing triple 7. Boeing designed an ergonomic nightmare. For unless you are a center in the NBA or you stand on the first seat in the row it is almost impossible for most humans, including one flight attendant who stated, “I am not closing that,” to close the compartments. My backpack was in a center compartment and inaccessible for the entire flight unless I wanted to stand on the lap of a very large guy! I will bet more than one person has wrenched their back trying to close these compartments. Seems like an opportunity for personal injury lawyers. What were they thinking?

I was invited to the Ukraine by a company called Metinvest - a large company with around 130,000 employees working mostly in coal mines and soviet era constructed steel mills. Metinvest’s safety professionals and corporate communication staff planned and skillfully executed a safety conference titled, Good Safety = Good Business. It was a 2-day event attended by about 250 people from 70 different companies located in both Eastern and Western Europe. Noteworthy was the fact that Metinvest not only planned but covered the cost of the conference – attendees paid no conference fee. The venue for the conference was a new modern hotel, the Shakhtar Plaza, in Donetsk, Ukraine.

Donetsk is a coal mining town founded by a Welsh businessman in 1869 who extracted wealth from the region via steel making and coal mining. Donetsk is located in Southeastern Ukraine near the Russian border. Russian, rather than Ukrainian, is the language spoken here. It is slowly changing from a drab Soviet era town to a town with features to be proud of like the newest and largest soccer stadium in Eastern Europe, Donbass Arena - home of the Shakhtar FC. Springing up on the outskirts of Donetsk are both modern retail and grocery stores and, I am sorry to say, the almost universal sign of progress for small towns and emerging economies - two McDonald’s restaurants. This is a city and a country moving forward while defining a new identity in the post Soviet era.

My Metinvest contact, with whom I worked for months to plan and arrange my visit, was a Russian born safety professional who is passionate about making a safety difference in a country and industries where safety was not a priority. For example the fatality rate (fatalities per 100,000 workers) in the Ukraine is around twice that of the US. She and her safety co-workers were former “Duponters” – individuals trained in the Dupont behavior based safety philosophy. It was explained to me that the DuPont methodology requires you to work with your people to get to zero injuries because it is mostly people who make mistakes leading to injuries and it is people who remove barricading, fail to use lockout procedures, take shortcuts, etc. This is a sound approach to safety management and yet I feel this methodology gives focus to safety from only one perspective – the worker's activities relative to safety compliance. At first the Dupont method seemed at conflict with my "the process is the problem - not the person" lean thinking approach for I believe in eliminating the hazard when possible and thus eliminating the training and auditing required to help the person avoid the hazard. Of course, there is not one right approach – only different approaches that all have merit. For instance both my method and the Dupont method focus on employee engagement. My mission however was to help the conference attendees understand the lean continuous improvement employee engagement approach to proactive safety improvement. What is different and dare I say new about my approach is that I ask people to only watch people work and make their job safer and easier. It is not a focus on adherence to compliance requirements – it is a focus on the continuous improvement of the safety of an individual’s work activities.

Prior to the start of the conference I was given a tour of part of the Ilyich (Lenin) Iron and Steel works. This over 100 year old facility has quite a history. For instance, two of their blast furnaces were disassembled and moved to Northern Siberia during WWII to prevent them from being destroyed by the invading German army. Metinvest purchased this facility just 2 years ago and has only started to make changes. Today this drab aging site employs around 35,000 people! I was taken on a tour of the steel making and slab casting facilities before making a second stop to tour a plate mill that produced steel plates for ship building. Since 18 years of my work history were spent at US Steel Corporation I was familiar with the processes I viewed. No evidence of lean or continuous improvement activities was visible during my two stops. Leadership seemed stuck in the top down directive Soviet past. This in no way reflects badly on them for they like all of us are a reflection of our culture and working environment. Change is indeed the only constant and we all have to face a changing world both at work and in our daily lives.

On the afternoon of the second day of the conference I joined a bus full of conference attendees to tour the Metinvest Khartsizsk Pipe Plant – a facility purchase by Metinvest in 2006. This site manufactures large diameter pipe for the oil and gas industry. The contrast between this plant and the Ilyich plant was stunning. I witnessed a completely different work culture and work environment due to application of the 5S lean philosophy. This was the largest facility I had ever visited that had implemented 5S. The young, proud and lean savvy leaders at this plant talked about how it was when they first arrived. Windows at the roof level were all missing and workers would stand around 55 gallon drums of burning wood to keep warm. They transformed a facility that was filthy and disorganized into a bright, clean and organized plant they were proud to show us or any visitors. It was a great example of what determined focused leaders can accomplish. I was very impressed.

Prior to my trip I had read that Ukrainians are stoic and smiles are rationed like consumer goods during their Soviet past. This was true if you were passing someone you did not know but when I was engaged in a conversation or when they talked amongst themselves they were just as friendly and prone to smiling and laughing as friends back home. I found them to be warm, friendly and genuine people. They are concerned about how they and their country are perceived by westerners. Comments directed at me included: “Tell people it is safe!”, “You were not afraid to come to the Ukraine?”, “What do you think of the Ukraine?”, and “Is this what you expected?” My opinions are distilled from my experiences and all of my experiences in the Ukraine were very good. Building a new society is a big job but the Ukraine and the determined people I met are on that arduous journey.

Not speaking their languages (Russian and Ukrainian) was certainly an issue for me. Not only is the language different but the letters of the alphabet are Cyrillic. As I walked around Donetsk I had no idea what most retail outlets sold for I could not read the signage. Fortunately for me the conference organizers provided simultaneous translation into either Russian or English. The translators, who did a wonderful job, were present in all of the conference sessions and on the plant tour. My role at the conference was to present both a 40 minute keynote and a three hour workshop. Lean concepts were new to most of the conference attendees so my keynote began with an overview of lean before making the connection to lean safety. I challenged them to focus on process, people engagement and the continuous improvement of safety. Since most have worked or still work in cultures that rely on top down direction the concept of employee engagement was as foreign to many of them as the Russian language was to me. The workshop was for a select group of Metinvest site directors and a few other senior leaders who were attending the conference. Many of their plants employ thousands of people so influencing them could lead to meaningful safety change. With that end in mind the workshop include small group exercises that engaged them in defining an employee safety engagement survey and leader safety standard work for themselves.

All in all it was a wonderful opportunity to make a safety difference in a country where historically safety was not a priority. Metinvest, by hosting their second safety conference, is helping to lead the Ukrainian nation on a journey to make workplace safety a priority. I hope to be invited back to the third conference to witness their progress. More than one person said, “See you next year,” and I enthusiastically said "da!" The most rewarding part of my new career has been the opportunity to meet and get to know great people all over the world. Anna, my primary contact, and all of her Metinvest associates are making a real safety difference at not only their company, but in their country. I was honored to be invited and have the opportunity to contribute to their effort to make Metinvest and all workplaces in the Ukraine safer places to work.

It has been a wonderful year and I am looking forward to the holidays with family and friends. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to both you and your family. Stay safe!