Tag Archives: Don Blankenship

What Should Business Leaders Think About? — Maybe This is the True Test of Leadership

We become what we think about all day long.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

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News item:
Investors want mining head to resign:  Massey faces shareholder anger over mine disaster by Steve James
(Reuters) – Some investor groups are calling for the head of Massey Energy to resign, blaming his attitude toward safety for the mine blast that killed 29 at a company mine in West Virginia.

I don’t know Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy.  I’m sure he is saddened by the death of the people who died in his mine.  I’m sure he wished they had not died.  But I think I know this – he did not think often enough, deeply enough, with enough focus, about mine safety.

You become what you think about.

This is not an insignificant issue.  This is a very serious issue.

If you think about maximizing profits, you will not think about mine safety.  And if you don’t think about mine safety, and you are in the mining business, then your miners will not be safe enough.

If you think about pleasing stock-holders, you will not think about what is best for the over-all health of your business.

If you think about your stock price, you might not think about what is best for the people who work in your company.

I know this from experience.  What gets my thoughts gets my attention and my actions.

It seems to me that one of the big jobs for a leader, maybe the biggest job, is to think about the right issues.  To fail to do so will lead to a failure to take care of the right issues.

You become what you think about.
So — What do you think about?

Sometimes a “C-” is not “Good Enough”

Admiral Rickover asks: "Why not the best?"

Why Not The Best?
“In your life was there ever a time in which you did less than the best?” If the answer was “yes,” the follow up question was:  “Why not the best?” – asked by Admiral Hyman George Rickover (Admiral Rickover would ask this of all Naval Cadets, and the story was oft re-told by Jimmy Carter).

Good enough is good enough
“When good enough gets the job done, go for it.  It’s way better than wasting resources (And, remember, you can usually turn good enough into great later”).
Fried and Hansson, ReWork

Think “good enough.”  By “good enough” we mean absolutely, definitely, not our very best, not perfect.  We are actively encouraging you to perform occasionally below standard…  Men are better at saying, “OK, this is good enough in my eyes.”
Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, Womenomics

Six Sigma
Six Sigma seeks to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects (errors).

“Zero Defects”
Zero Defects” is Step 7 of “Philip Crosby’s 14 Step Quality Improvement Process”

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Good enough is good enough – until it is not.  Then good enough is a disaster.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days.  The thoughts were prompted by a couple of news items, with some numbers buried within the stories that have deeply bothered me, and a whole lot of other folks.

Greenspan argues that a "C-" is "good enough" ("I was right 70 percent of the time.")

Consider these numbers:

Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, said Wednesday of his two-decade career in government: “I was right 70 percent of the time, but I was wrong 30 percent of the time. And there were an awful lot of mistakes in 21 years.” (read about this here).

“86 percent of mines are safe.” (I heard this stated in an NPR interview by a spokesman defending mine safety – I don’t have a link).

The list is pretty long that describes business decisions, practices, “quality control” issues, where good enough is not good enough.  The airplane safety was not good enough when the President of Poland and a plane load of others died in a crash that, at first reports, may have been caused by an unsafe airplane and pilot error.

Alan Greenspan was clearly not practicing the right levels of “good” when he was only right 70 percent of the time.  In fact, when Greenspan said it, here was the response by the committee chair:

That prompted Phil Angelides, the commission’s chairman, to say Thursday that he would consider himself a success if he was right just 51 percent of the time. “I don’t aspire to reach what Mr. Greenspan thinks he has reached,” he said, in a sardonic tone.

And a mine safety figure of 86 percent mines deemed safe is clearly not good enough – just ask the families of the twenty-nine dead miners, as they labored for a company with an abysmal safety record and an attitude that clearly placed profits over human safety and even human life.

One of the true business and society and life challenges is this one:  when is “good enough good enough” vs. when is “my best” critical?

I agree with the “good enough” movement – except when I don’t.  I don’t mind a “good enough” free pen in a conference center.  I don’t mind receiving a text message with a spelling error.  But I would like the very best airline safety, if you don’t mind.  And when Alan Greenspan argues that his 70 percent right was good enough (that is a “C-” in most grading systems), I think it is time to dust off Admiral Rickover’s question.

It’s Not My Fault – I’m Not Responsible

In a 2006 internal memo to underground mine managers, Blankenship’s exasperation with what he saw as excessive caution was evident: As the New York Times reported, in the memo, Mr. Don Blankenship (CEO of Massey Energy Corporation) instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he said.

(read about this here).

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Here’s a business book that needs to be written.  How to Handle a Real Mistake – I Mean, a Real Whopper.

There is a long list of people who should not write this book:  The CEO of Massey Energy Corporation, the CEO of Toyota, Alan Greenspan.  And the list is really much longer.  They all seem to have the same message, that in one way or another, is this message:

“It’s Not My Fault – I’m Not Responsible.”

Now, of course, I do not believe that the CEO of Massey Mining personally caused the death of those miners (though his company is certainly negligent; possibly criminally negligent), nor did Greenspan personally cause the crash, nor did the CEO of Toyota personally design the flawed vehicles.  But in each case, and many more, the warning signs were clear, and no leaders stepped up and yelled fire loudly enough to clear the theater.

And if you listen to interviews with such people, especially Don Blankenship of Massey Energy, they come across as evasive (and, though this is quite subjective, there seems to be a genuine compassion shortage).

Whatever else business leadership is, it is this:  the leader assumes and takes and acknowledges responsibility.

And I assume we have now learned this truth (although, many do not seem to have fully grasped it):  there will be big time mistakes made in companies.

Some of these mistakes or deficiencies can be life threatening.  And it is the job of a leader to say, “if we find a mistake, a deficiency, in our company that is life threatening, then we stop what we are doing, now, and solve this problem.  Now!”  Any failure to do this is a clear statement of priorities, and reveals the true priority — of profit over human life.

And I will state my bias – any leader that places profits over human life is not worthy of leadership at all.

The Wall Street meltdown may not have endangered human life like Massey Energy and Toyota, but the tendency to say, in one way or another, “It’s not my fault – I’m not responsible” is not the kind of leadership we need in this very difficult era.

Someone needs to actually lead!