View from the Edge

Solving the Wrong Problem: Why Process Matters More Than Rules

In this issue, CarriersEdge co-founder Mark Murrell looks at why rigid safety policies don't always work to improve the fleet's risk profile.

Should you fire a driver for using a handheld device while driving?

The conventional wisdom is that any self-respecting fleet should have a policy prohibiting that activity, and anyone caught violating the policy should be terminated. The same conventional wisdom also says that anything less than termination for the above situation demonstrates negligence, a huge potential problem when court cases come up.

The conventional wisdom, however, is wrong. It misses the point and aggravates the very situation it's attempting to remedy.

Here's why.

In Search of the Perfect Policy

I've just returned from the TCA's annual convention in Orlando, where a highlight of the event is the presentation of the National Fleet Safety Awards. As a result, many of the conversations around the convention, and several of the breakout sessions, are focused on fleet safety and driver performance management.

Those conversations often centered around distracted driving, including comparisons of policies and discipline - which offenses constituted a "strike" in a 3-strike policy, which were grounds for immediate dismissal, etc. These were diligent fleet owners and safety professionals sincerely motivated to make the roads safer for everyone. However, their efforts in this area will never produce satisfactory results because they're trying to solve the wrong problem.

There's no magic combination of policies and discipline that will "fix" safety in a fleet, so while it may be interesting to compare policies with other fleets, it's not going to improve anything. In fact, it often does the opposite.

Fleets with a multitude of black and white policies about what drivers MUST and MUST NOT do can end up in worse shape than their counterparts for the simple reason that the world isn't black and white. It's a million different shades of grey. If the rules stipulate that anything that isn't black must be white, then there are going to be a ton of situations where the fleet either follows the rule and makes a decision that's bad for the business, or they do what's right for the business and break the rule. The first one hurts the business in the short term, the second one potentially hurts much more in the future when it gets used to demonstrate negligence in court.

Solving the Right Problem

What strikes me most about the comparison of policies at events like this is that the fleets that actually have the best safety records are the most lax in this area.

That's right. The safest fleets aren't the most strict with their rules and discipline.

How is that possible?

The answer is that they're focusing on the process rather than the rules. In place of a blanket rule that says "anyone caught using a handheld device will be terminated", they have a process for evaluating the situation, creating a plan of action, then executing that plan. The resulting steps will be different for each driver, and that's the point - more personalized and more effective as a result.

A great example of this comes from Bison Transport, perennial award winner as safest fleet in North America - they don't have a 3 strike policy, and have much looser rules than most other fleets their size. Instead, they have consultants, coaches, and trainers that work with each driver to identify areas for improvement and put together plans to address issues. Sometimes the result is still that the driver has to go, but much of the time drivers get rehabilitated and the company can build on that relationship. While other fleets worry about how to defend themselves in court, Bison avoids court altogether by working with drivers to prevent problems in the first place. The process is structured, rigorous, and repeatable, and the results certainly speak for themselves.

At another event last year, I attended a session that provided a pretty compelling defense of this approach. It was a panel discussion featuring an insurer, a transportation lawyer, and two fleets. Someone had asked the lawyer about the kinds of things he was seeing in court cases and how fleets could protect themselves. The lawyer pointed out that while fleets focus much of their attention on the driver, court cases always end up being about the company's processes. Juries tend to be interested in what training the company has done, how they coach their drivers, and how all of that gets documented. He noted that companies that can demonstrate they've taken an active interest in developing and rehabilitating drivers tend not to get questioned as much because they're seen as good employers.

Process Over Rules

It's easy to focus on concrete things like policies and disciplinary steps, and tempting to feel that once a policy is in place then the problem is solved - either people follow the policy or they get cut. That's false security, though, since policy violations are often only the symptoms of a problem. Improving a safety record requires understanding the root causes of the problem and addressing them directly.

Going back to my example at the top, there may be any number of things that led to that driver getting caught using a handheld device. Maybe that driver is a bad apple who doesn't pay attention and needs to be terminated. Or maybe they just don't fully understand why it's important to stay focused. Maybe this was an isolated case and by terminating that driver the problem is solved. Or maybe there are lots of drivers doing it and that one happened to get caught. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances that warrant further discussion. Maybe that driver is normally a stellar employee but has personal or professional stress that's causing a lack of focus.

A simple policy dictating dismissal for violators isn't going to identify what's really going on, but a consulting and coaching process will. The fleets that have a process to explore what happened and why, then consider a broader, fleet-wide solution, will always do better than the fleets that apply black and white rules. Remember, there's no guarantee that the replacement driver is going to be any better than the one who just got terminated.

But if you focus on having a great driver development process, rather than a great set of rules, you'll have better drivers in the end. That's the right problem to solve.

View from the Edge is a bi-monthly review of best practices in risk management, driver development, and technology for the trucking industry, produced by CarriersEdge.

CarriersEdge provides interactive online driver training for the North American trucking industry. A comprehensive library of safety and compliance courses is supplemented with extensive content creation and customization options, full featured survey tools, detailed management reports, and the industry's first dedicated mobile app for driver training.

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