Playing it safe

Steve Hirano, Editor/Associate Publisher
Posted on August 1, 2004

In school bus transportation, you often use phrases like “precious cargo” and “safety is our top priority.” These are apt descriptions of your passengers and your operational imperative. Frequent use of these phrases can help to remind you of the critical nature of what you do — but it can also lead to a dangerous complacency.

I’m not speaking in riddles here. What I’m trying to say is that we need to constantly freshen our perspectives. Yes, safety is important. I would hope that it’s the overriding responsibility of everyone who transports passengers. But playing it safe can also be dangerous.

Ah, now you see what I’m getting at. Or at least I hope you do. The danger lies not in striving for the highest level of safety in your transportation program, but in believing that your program is already as safe as it can be. Maintaining the status quo provides comfort because it feels safe. It isn’t.

Overcoming your fear
To attack this illusion requires the courage to confront one of your worst fears: that you’re not performing as well as you could; that you could do better.

Doing better is difficult. It means letting go of the notion that “good enough” is actually good enough. Half-hearted pre-trip inspections aren’t good enough; buses rolling out of the lot with brake flaws aren’t good enough; routes that require children to cross hazardous intersections aren’t good enough.

I could draw up a long list of my own “good enoughs,” but I don’t want to bore you with my problems. My job is important, but not as important as yours. I don’t transport 24 million children every school day. I don’t try to manage their behavior while navigating a 36,000-pound bus down the road with impatient motorists nipping at my rear end. I don’t deal with angry parents who want to know why the bus was late or why Junior is being picked on by the other kids. What you do for a living has a razor-thin margin of error. That’s why “good enough” isn’t.

Improvement is vital
Recognizing that improvement is essential is the first step. Even if your safety record is the envy of every school bus operation in the state, you’re always just one catastrophic accident away from a quick and merciless free fall to the bottom of the safety ladder.

The second step is to spread the message. Here’s what to tell anyone who’ll listen: “This year, we’re going to find ways to improve the operation. I want to hear your suggestions.”

The third step is to create a plan with measurable objectives. The key here is to come up with reasonable suggestions. Setting the bar too high can be demotivating and actually have a negative effect on performance levels. Also, you need to explain the positive consequences of meeting these objectives.

The fourth step is to challenge your people. Make it clear that they will need to commit themselves to the plan. Those who can’t abide by this need for commitment should be encouraged to look for another type of employment.

The fifth step, of course, is to execute the plan. And to reward those who help you reach your goals.

Let’s make improvement our top priority. That includes raising the bar on safety, efficiency, morale, innovation, training and hiring. Don’t try to be perfect. That’s a sure-fire way to ensure failure. Try to be a little better every day. I’ll do the same.


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