I have been advocating the idea of borderless safety for several years, forming a consistent focus on our safety efforts regardless of the country visited. So, today when I heard that one of our safety professionals in Saudi Arabia walked a project with his peer sitting in Japan, that was a milestone in our efforts.
Following are my thoughts on the constraints and opportunities of having overseas operations and my lessons learned as I met some of the most wonderful people in the world.
Lesson #1—It's Not Wrong, It's Just Different
The idea of wearing a body belt for fall protection is not something we have seen in the United States since the 1990s, but they are worn in Japan. Your first inclination may be to stop the practice, but it's important to remember that you are a guest. Their work practices are formed by tradition by generations of users looking at risk the same way we do. You must consider the overall safety efforts, you see. Stretch and flex programs have gone on for generations. Also, installing scaffolding from the level below and installing safety protection with rails with no chance of a fall are an attention to detail often overlooked here in the United States.
If you are walking from a muddy work site to a new concrete floor, there will be a pan of water and a brush at every entrance so you do not track mud, because mud will later turn to dust. That level of care is everywhere—care for the work underway and care for the worker. Nowhere else have I seen jackets with cooling fans to keep the wearer cool or the idea of taking a nap every day at lunch to recharge. I love that.
Look at site activity and conditions based on safety, not regulations. Ask the roller operator on a machine without a roll bar if he should have one. He may answer, "No, I would never work near the edge of a road or somewhere this could tip over." That is a sincere answer, not the wrong answer.
Lesson #2—First Be Nice, and Listen
When traveling, it's a good idea to bring your hosts a small gift. Nothing expensive but something that shows you cared when you chose it. I have brought fossils from Texas to Okinawa and maple leaves from New York to Tokyo. Your first meeting with a contractor cannot be about safety; it's about trust. Remember, you only have one chance to make a good first impression.
When you have established trust, any venture is easier. Once, a safety manager went overseas, and the first thing he mentioned to his host was a site concern he saw on the way to the office. From that point on, the stage was set, and that manager was not asked back.
Just being nice must be coupled with listening, which is something few do very well. I love to talk and bring the conversation back to myself. Yes, I typed that, and I'm not alone … we all do it. At your next meeting, watch how each person will try to add to a conversation so they feel valued and relevant. That is how we humans tick.
When traveling, I put my wallet in my front pocket at meetings. This gets me a bit off balance and is a physical reminder to shut up. First, you may be asked to remove your shoes and enter the office. You will be served with the smallest coffee cups in the world with the best coffee on the planet. Let them ask where you are from, if you have a family, and where you flew in from. Then, let them introduce themselves and what they do and how long they have been working for the company. They will be proud of that. You will not talk about the reason for the meeting until the coffee is cleared. They will explain how proud they are of the work, their firm, and their workers, and then ... they will ask your thoughts. That's how a meeting might start. Be patient, you are a guest.
Lesson #3—Words Do Not Really Matter as Much
Americans seem to have a policy or program for everything. We design a protocol for color-coded confirmation that an electrical cord has been inspected, specifically marking the cord to prove each inspection (often a different color each week) and documenting you completed the inspection, then entering that fact on a Web-based tracking program. In other countries, the "fix" often is practical and undocumented.
Once, I noted three pile drivers working on our site. The bolts holding the drive head were not quite all there. Rather than shout across the heads of people I had yet to meet, we headed over, and I asked my interpreter to check in with the lead operator. I hoped to meet the crews. They gladly stopped the machines, and I introduced myself as a "guest" from New York. I said that I loved their countryside and little farms and that I too had grown up on a farm. Going on, I let them know I loved construction sites and the equipment. In particular, I spent a lot of time working with pile drives and still could not understand why the wooden cushion on the top of the piles always smoked but never caught fire.
The operator went on to proudly introduce his crew and what each member did and how many piles they were driving. He asked what I thought of his three machines.
My answer: "I don't know how you keep these drivers so clean! In the United States, these would be the same color as the mud they are working through." I went on, "One thing that always troubled me was why the drive head bolts are not pinned in place since these machines always rattle and try to shake themselves apart. I see your bolts are starting to loosen as well. You should check your machines so you don't have to stop working or get hit on the head...." Unsure of what I was talking about, we stepped back a bit, and I showed them. Since the bolts are the same color as the shaft connection, they are difficult to see. The operator was impressed that I had discovered something wrong with his machine.
I suggested that we figure out how to keep those in place or at least make them easier to see. I stopped talking, and the crew started. When they were done, they asked me what I thought. "Well, on the farm, we would probably just paint the bolts and nuts red," I said, and we went on our way.
The next morning at stretch and flex, the operator grabbed me by the arm. No interpreter was needed when he took me over to his machine with a proud smile. The bolts had been painted red and were easy to see from the ground. He then showed me how he had also painted the other two units. He indicated that three other bolts were found missing from the other rigs. From that point on, I'm sure the operator will look at those bolts each morning before starting. No checklist needed, just a solution.
A second opportunity is to use the simplest of graphics when showing what right and wrong look like. One of our clients is the Army Corps of Engineers, and they lean on "showing" versus "telling" as often as possible. We took that idea and produced a series of lunch and learns we take to the field. From excavations to material handling, we have a library of a dozen or so 8–10 slide presentations. When you see some poor rigging, and language is a barrier, we just take out our iPad and show what we hope to see.
Lesson #4—A Simple Thanks Is Powerful
Contractors are good at sending a stop-work order or letter of noncompliance to subcontractors. The act establishes power for one party and failure to the other. Only hard feelings will result. One of the most common questions I ask our sites when visiting is, "When is the last time you sent a letter (not an email) to a subcontractor telling them they did a great job?" It's a rare occurrence.
When traveling overseas, the opportunity to recognize a team or owner is one of the more powerful tools to consider. When you hear of a great contractor performance, no matter where you are, send a letter that can be hung in a frame on the wall. It will take 20 minutes to draft, and the effect will last a lifetime. No need to write a book, just write what's true. Following is a response from a great contractor we use in the Mideast.
Thank you for your appreciation letter regarding the safety measures. At this point, we would like to enlighten you that we will continue the safety events in this project and for all the other future projects with your team. Also, we would like to thank you again for your site support to implement the job.
Khazal Aluminum Factory
Last are the "gifts" you can leave behind when visiting. Remember, you are seen as a guest and dignitary on a project. Everything you say is taken to heart, so it's not a good time for sarcasm or off-color comments.
When visiting a site, take the time to assemble a crew doing well and take their photo. Promise to send the photo back—to everyone. When you get home, get enough copies made for each worker and one for their family, and send them back to the site. They will appreciate your effort. This reflects well on your firm and your country. It's so simple but so meaningful. Do not forget that.
The crew below was doing some rebar work, and everything from a clear work area to workbenches was perfect. The supervisor came over to ask what I thought, and I asked him to assemble the team. I told them how great it was to see "so many things going right ..." and asked to take their photo. You can see the pride. When I said I would mail them back in a week or so, the supervisor asked if I could autograph them as well. How cool is that?
Should you have the opportunity to travel abroad and meet other construction folks, keep it simple. Remember what your mother said: be nice, work on listening more than speaking, and at every opportunity, say thanks. Those you meet are as proud of where they live and what they do as you are. Relish the role as a guest, and you will discover some of the best constructors in the world.
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