I have a habit of walking around the workplace at least once in a day. There are two reasons, one, you meet people, greet them, and get connected and the second reason is, you come to know what’s happening on the ground. Sometimes people share a lot of things while moving around.
While working at factories, I used to walk around before resuming the work. Daily, I used to go to the shop floor, meet and greet workmen and supervisors working there. I used to question and challenge them if I observed some issues on the shop floor. During such rounds, workmen used to be attentive, at least they used to show that they are doing something. During one of the meetings, one of the senior managers who was an expat, gave this example to other managers. He was on the assignment on the improvement & productivity projects.
“I have seen, nobody bothers even when other managers and even the production head is on the shop floor. Workmen still continue to waste their time. But when Mr. Bidwaik is there everybody becomes more active because he challenges them. Workmen have taken granted for other managers.” He mentioned. I was involved in the change management, culture building process and productivity improvement project. The workmen, staff and managers were in their old world. Resistance was always high, not even from workmen but from white collar employees also. Being in HR, it was a totally different experience for me. The big challenge was on behavioural based safety. People used to take the shortcuts, not that much serious about wearing PPEs.
It was a winter; the outside climate was amazing. I completed the round, it was a good walk, almost 4 km in the compass and shop floor. I went into my office, while I was unlocking my laptop, my intercom ranged. The production supervisor of one of the sections was on the line, “Hello Sir, please come on the shop floor immediately, one of the workmen had an accident.” He told me. I disconnected and rushed towards the incident. I saw a big crowd. The workman was under the roll of conveyor belt which had the weight of almost 600 kg. He was using the crane to move the newly manufactured roll of the belt at another location. The pulley tilted and the whole roll came out and fell on him. He was screaming. It was my first time to see such a horrible accident. Meanwhile an ambulance came. We took him to the hospital. His spine and vertebrae were damaged. His condition was critical. His family was communicated.
I was shocked to see his condition. I updated this to the CEO, government authorities and senior management. It was decided to admit him in a specialty hospital in Mumbai. I was with him almost daily to support him and his family. During this process, I had to accompany senior leadership to speak with authorities. Dealing with locals, family members and unions naturally came to me. He was operated on 3 times and it took almost one year for him to recover from this accident, however he could not do the activities which he used to do earlier. We decided to transfer him to the back office.
This incident was a lesson to all, company, managers, and workmen. They took safety seriously after that, but somebody had sacrificed to realize the same. Today whenever I see any unsafe behaviour, I interrupt the person and take his class.
Safety is one thing, but I also learnt one of the elements of leadership. Leadership is about role modelling and reinforcing the right behaviour. This is one of the weaknesses of those managers and supervisors. Nowadays, MNC organizations have a strong safety policy and promote strong safety behaviours.
For me that accident was the test of my leadership skills, while dealing with that workman, family, relatives and of course union office bearers. It was a roller-coaster of all types of emotions.
"It is true that turbulent times build great leadership skills."
In 2015, After almost 14 years of that incident, I attended the programme on communication during the crisis, conducted by one of the ex-BBC reporters. The learnings were as under,
- Gather the facts, don’t try to cover up,
- Tell the truth and be open,
- Communicate the action plan,
- Say, your priority is to take care of the people,
- Speak about how the investigation is going on, communicate only facts,
- Offer all support to government, police, and regulatory bodies,
- While doing this, use appropriate words, very clear communication and don’t use the words like I think, I assume etc. Hence preparation is the key.
In the above incident, our managers and I had to face local authorities, police, local citizens, and families. I was not trained to handle this, but when I look back and recollect that incident, I must say that I learnt a lot and that is unimaginable.