People – curse or cure?

The best systems depend on people. A careless, disinterested workforce can undermine the efforts of even the best environmental manager. According to Jim Hopwood, SH&E training and communications manager for Exxon Chemical Europe, a wise environmental manager will spend as much time working with the people as on management systems or environmental technology.

The rapid increase in environmental regulation and customer expectations shows no sign of ending. Organisations must adapt to survive. Technological solutions, when available, are often very expensive. They require investment in hardware and consume energy, which add to environmental stress. Often there is a much cheaper alternative – engaging the workforce in a programme to improve equipment reliability and their own work practices.

But, as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Caring is not enough. People must have the knowledge and skill to carry out their tasks reliably and take sensible decisions when confronted with unusual situations.

To be engaged in an activity means more than to be interested and knowledgeable. It means to be actively and enthusiastically involved. It is entirely natural for people to become enthusiastically involved in improvement activities. We are social beings and need to feel we are contributing to the common good. The job of a manager intent on engaging his or her workforce in environmental improvement is to create the situation where this natural process can flourish. This means removing blocks to the process and ensuring that the right conditions are in place.

In the right conditions, we move quickly round the engagement process becoming progressively more enthusiastic, more skilled and more effective. If any are missing the virtuous spiral is broken and may be replaced by a negative process leading to cynicism and apathy.

One of the biggest blocks to engagement is negative feedback. If people feel blamed for lack of progress or for taking risks they will soon stop trying to improve. Encourage them to look back at how far they have come as well as looking forward at how far there is to go. Celebrate every success, however small.

Appropriate level

Another trap is to involve people at the wrong level. I am not suggesting every technician participates in writing the company’s environmental policy, or even in setting plant-wide improvement targets. Such exercises commonly result in long action lists for management and a general feeling of frustration. However, he or she should be involved in translating the policy and targets into an action plan for his or her own work team.

Each person needs to participate at an appropriate level. The appropriate level is the one at which the employee can provide valuable knowledge and expertise and at which he or she can contribute to the achievement of the vision. Different people respond to different types of activity and different styles of communication. Different groups have different formal and informal communication channels such as routine meetings or access to computerised information. So different activities are required to engage them in the process of environmental improvement.

In a large organisation, different types of activity are usually run by different departments which have their own budgets and priorities. It is vital that all the activities in a programme are based on the same values and promote the same behaviours. This is likely to require some form of site or company-wide steering group uniting all the different organisers and sponsors.

It must be a line management responsibility to decide what training each person receives. But they may need a little prompting and encouragement from the environmental specialist. They need to answer two questions:

  • What do you want the trainee to do as a result of attending the training?
  • What knowledge, skills and attitude do they need to do it to your satisfaction?

Knowledge is the easiest to define and measure, but on its own rarely makes a difference. It is readily acquired from written texts. It can be summarised in check lists and procedures and stored for future use. Training is often used to speed knowledge transfer, but arguably is not really needed. A newsletter or report could do the job just as well.

Skills require practise to develop and maintain. This takes time and requires enough motivation to overcome early failures. One of the most useful things a training course can do is to provide a safe place to practise skills – a place where mistakes will not result in plant damage, financial loss or career blight.

Down to earth

Attitude is the most difficult to specify or assess, but is also the most important. No amount of knowledge or skill will help if the person does not want to change (or, as sometimes happens, is determined not to change). It is debatable how much effect training has on attitude. It cannot make people careful and open when the prevailing culture is careless and secretive. But it can speed the introduction of a new culture once senior management have defined it and are providing the necessary leadership.

The answers need to be specific and down to earth. It might be nice for everyone to have a broad knowledge of natural history, but what they actually need is to know which bin to put different types of waste in and to be motivated to do it. Some may be motivated by love of the environment, others by a desire to do better than the people in the next office, and still others by a fear of disciplinary action. But they all do the same thing – put the waste in the right bins.

Every trainee is unique. Each comes with a different set of background experiences, skills, know-ledge, assumptions and prejudices. Less obviously, each has his or her preferred way of learning. Some of us jump straight in, try something and analyse the results (“doers”). Others prefer to observe what is happening without becoming involved, and base their conclusions on what they see (“observers”). Some people prefer to think carefully about a topic before, or instead of, making tests or observations (“thinkers”). Yet others focus on their need to make a decision; for them knowledge or understanding is meaningless without actions (“decision-makers”).

In fact, there is some of each of these four stereotypes in all of us and an effective learning experience needs to involve us in all four activities. But different people prefer to start at a different place on the cycle. Courses should be designed to permit this variation and to ensure that each person completes the whole cycle with respect to each of the topics covered.

It is, frankly, extremely rare to find either external or internal technical training courses that have really taken these ideas on board. Yet the techniques are well understood and widely used in personal effectiveness training. There is an urgent need for these two approaches to be combined so that people get the technical information they need and the motivation and skills needed to use it at the same time.

Many different training methods are available. Each one is better at meeting some kinds of objectives and worse at others. A skilled trainer chooses the methods that will best achieve the agreed learning objectives for each particular course. Any activity, however, becomes stale after a time. When it no longer works or attracts people’s interest, close it down. Resist the temptation to keep all the old activities going and simply add new ones. This dilutes the effort and increases the cost. When people see that management is only paying lip service to an activity they wonder if all the other activities are equally hollow. On the other hand, if it ain’t bust, don’t change it. Avoid the “flavour of the month” approach which soon turns people off.

Lecturing, which is the basis of most commercial training, can do little more than provide basic knowledge, even when a few questions are thrown in. It can do nothing to develop skill and is unlikely to develop an attitude which will result in the knowledge being used. If we want our training to really make a difference, more sophisticated methods are required.

Participative risk

Not only is participative training much more effective, it is also more fun and more memorable. But it can feel quite risky to the trainer. Telling them the answers, demonstrating our expertise and ensuring all the points are covered feels much safer, and besides, isn’t that what we are paid to do? No, it’s not. As trainers we are paid to do something that will make a difference in the workplace.

Remember the old Chinese proverb: “I cannot hear what you say because your actions speak a thousand times louder.” Messages are conveyed much more powerfully by actions than by words. Training and communications must be consistent with what is happening on the ground. If the purpose is to encourage change, the training and the organisational changes need to run in parallel and be well integrated.

In other words, training and communications must be part of an overall environmental improvement programme. As such, they can fulfil a vital role in promoting and facilitating the changes required. Indeed, no change programme will get far without effective training and communications.

This article is based on the author’s 60-page report, Engaging Employees – Environmental Training and Internal Communications, published by JL Publishing Ltd.

Capital vs labour?

A large UK refinery, built in the late 1950s, was required to improve the quality of its effluent discharge into a coastal estuary. The engineering solution involved the construction of a biological wastewater treatment plant and revamping the sewer system to provide segregated routes for clean water, oily water and water containing harmful chemicals. The whole project cost £30m. A few people were assigned full time to run the system. Ongoing operations, maintenance and sludge disposal costs are considerable.

Another similar refinery, faced with a similar demand, launched a “no oil in sewer” campaign. Operators, maintenance technicians and engineers were engaged in a campaign to identify all the routes by which oil and chemicals could enter the sewer system and devising ways to close them. New operating procedures and maintenance procedures were written. Leak detection was improved and repairs speeded up. Many people learned to take a little extra care in their normal daily tasks. The effluent targets were met with minimal capital investment. Additional operating costs were easily covered by the reductions in product loss and waste disposal costs.

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