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Rules: To Follow Or Not To Follow, That Is The Question

May 31, 2012

Over the past few blogs, we’ve been talking about our SafetyDNA S.A.F.E. model. This model identifies four individual characteristics that contribute to one’s safety potential: Stays in Control, Awareness, Follows Rules and Exhibits Caution. Today we’ll take a closer look at following rules.

Rules have a bad reputation. Unless you’re the one who is setting the rules or charged with enforcing them, no one really likes rules. This is especially true when it’s a rule you don’t
necessarily agree with or see the value of.  Some rules make perfect sense, like don’t drink poison.  Other rules are less clear, like don’t walk on the grass. What’s wrong with that, you may ask?  I like walking on fresh green grass.  But, if everybody did it (one of your mother’s favorite sayings no doubt), soon the grass would be worn to nothing but dirt.

Further, it is difficult to follow the rules when doing so is an unpopular decision.  Often is the case when it comes to Safety.  Oftentimes, we are tempted to turn a blind eye to possible unsafe behaviors, especially when adherence to safety rules makes a job harder or more time intensive and could lead to lost revenue, reduced productivity, or inefficiencies for a business.  We do so, in the short term, even though the potential outcomes of unsafe behavior are even more costly long term.  Well, I recently encountered one such situation while returning home from a business trip.  I admit, I initially thought that the airline should “just let this infraction slide”; but in retrospect, my inconvenience was minor compared to the peace of mind and credibility the airline built by following the rules.

Here’s the situation: I had a one-day business trip from Pittsburgh to Denver.  Actually, it was a two hour meeting; but it ended up lasting me three full working days.  On the trip out of Pittsburgh, my flight was delayed by two hours because the crew did not get enough sleep the day before.  The airline’s safety rule prevented us from flying with a tired and potentially unsafe crew. An inconvenience, but I was glad to know that my pilot and crew were awake and aware as they transported me to Denver. I made it to my business meeting and headed back to the airport ready for my flight home. 

That evening, storms in the area caused a flight delay. The arriving flight needed to be rerouted to ensure that it could land safely. Once again, the safety of the passengers and crew were in the forefront of their decision making. When the plane arrived three hours late, we began a rather lengthy boarding process.  Once onboard, the pilot made an announcement saying, “I am very sorry to deliver this message; however, because it took so long to board, I am now overtime.  I cannot fly today. I have exceeded the number of hours I am allowed in the plane.”  Just like that.  The flight was cancelled. Another rule, another delay.  The airline provided me with a hotel and a new reservation for a flight that would not depart for another 24 hours.

Again, I was at the airport early on the following day.  It was a beautiful day in Colorado – no storms present – no reason to think there would be a delay.  I went to the gate and was pleased to see the plane waiting for me.  Further, I heard word from the airline employees that the crew was not at risk of going overtime.  Boarding went flawlessly.  The passengers were cooperative, I was comfortable in my extended legroom seat.  My aisle mate even let me have the arm rest. I was looking forward to a nice flight home after all of this trouble. As the crew was going over the safety card, I saw a concerned look on one of their faces . . . and then nervous whispering.  The dreaded announcement then came forth: “We are sorry to inform you of this, but we just realized that the seatback safety cards are not updated to the most recent version.  It is against FAA regulation for us to fly until these are updated.  We apologize for the delay.”  Then . . . we waited, and waited.  Many alternatives were offered such as sharing and photocopying, but the answer was invariably, “I’m sorry. The FAA requires us to use only the official laminated card stock copies.”  It took almost three hours for the flight crew to find enough cards for everyone on our plane. I have flown many times without incident, and without looking at that card in the seatback pocket. Chances are that no one on that plane would need the safety card; but, what if we did???  Following safety rules is about preventing something that doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, the results could be disastrous.

Eventually, I did get home, but not until 3:30 AM. I was tired and had spent many unproductive hours in the airport and airport hotels.  As I reflect back on my experience, I ask myself - were the right choices made?  I think so.  By following the rules, the airline was protecting my health and welfare and that of everyone else  on the plane.  By following the rules, no one on that plane was without the information they needed should a safety issue emerge.  By following the rules, I feel more confident that this airline takes my safety seriously.  While I was inconvenienced last week, they earned credibility with me that will last into the future.  When all is said and done, despite my inconvenience and lack of sleep, I am pleased that the airline handled their business with such high attention to detail, integrity, rule adherence, and safety orientation.

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Ted Kinney, Ph.D. Ted Kinney, Ph.D. is the VP of Research and Development for PSI. An Industrial/Organizational psychologist, Dr. Kinney leads a team of selection experts and developers in the creation and on-going research into the most efficient and effective selection methodologies and tools. He is a trusted advisor to many international companies across all industries. He has particular expertise in behavioral interviewing, turnover reduction, effective selection strategy, and executive assessment.