As I start my new career adventure as the lead EHS Analyst at LNS Research, I’m charged with developing new frameworks for thinking about and analyzing environmental, health, and safety and sustainability issues and solutions. The vocabulary we use to describe problems and develop solutions is important, so naturally my mind wanders often onto how we talk about the EHS business function.
Having worked in the field of EHS management for over 30 years, I’ve heard the EHS business function referred to in a lot of different ways. On one end of the scale is “necessary evil,” and on the other is “competitive advantage.” Fortunately, these days EHS and the intertwined endeavor of sustainability are talked about as a potential source of competitive advantage, and a key means for organizations to manage risks and opportunities, and be more sustainable.
Recently, I was struck by a revelation that EHS as a business function is analogous to the role of the electric bass guitar in a rock band. You might be wondering why this seemingly random thought would even occur to me.
Seven years ago I started playing bass in a classic rock band. I’ve gone a lot further with it than I could have imagined at the time, having played over 50 live shows with four different bands. The venues have ranged from frat houses and dive bars to major league venues, like CONSOL Energy Center and PNC Park in Pittsburgh. So. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to think about and experience the role of the bass in a band setting.
Roles and Responsibilities of the Bass Player
Before drawing the analogy to EHS, let’s look at the role of the bass player. With all due modesty and objectivity, the bass is probably the most critical instrument in the band. If the bass player screws up, the audience immediately knows something is wrong. On the other hand, if the lead guitar player messes up it’s just artistic interpretation.
The bass plays two major roles in a musical group: laying the rhythmic foundation and establishing the harmonic foundation. The rhythmic foundation refers to the consistent pulse of the music. A skilled bass player supports the group and the music by providing a steady, good-feeling beat, of course working closely with the drummer. This is job #1, and many people recognize this role.
What’s less well-known is that the bassist also lays down the harmonic foundation. Harmony occurs when several different notes are played together, and the bass player's second major role is to properly define the harmony by delivering the correct foundational notes. Both the rhythmic and harmonic foundations are at the core of the sound of the band. If the bass player isn’t doing his or her job the entire performance will suffer.
How EHS Management is Like the Bass
So, how does the all this talk about bass relate to EHS? The EHS and bass functions play remarkably similar roles. Both EHS and bass are:
- Not flashy, but critical to success- Like EHS, the bassist tends to be in the background, yet critically important. In many bands, the bass player hangs out back by the drummer, while the lead singers and guitar players are typically the ones out front getting all the glory. Of course in manufacturing, it is often the wildly successful new product launches, like the Apple iPhone and iPad that get all the glory. If EHS issues aren’t managed well behind the scenes these issues can quickly ruin the show.
- Essential to keep things moving along- The bass player provides a steady rhythm that moves the song forward, the same way that the EHS function helps keep production going. A major error by a bass player can stop a song in its tracks. A failure in the EHS management system can likewise lead to an incident that interrupts production. On the other hand, well-executed EHS promotes operational continuity with optimal production and quality.
- Key to establishing the overall groove - By serving as the link between rhythm and harmony, the bass is foundational for setting the overall feel of song, known as the groove. Likewise, EHS often helps determine the overall “groove” of an organization in terms of the prevailing operating culture, employee engagement, and continuous improvement. Consider a company whose EHS aspiration is only to achieve compliance vs. one in which the entire organization is committed to a “zero incidents” goal. Those are two very different sounding grooves.
- Enablers of harmony - In establishing the harmonic foundation, the bass provides the audio lubrication that facilitates synchronization among the band members and instruments. This is much like how an effective EHS management system encourages cross-functional collaboration throughout the value chain, from R&D, sourcing, manufacturing, and asset management, to distribution and after-market service. Proactive EHS compliance and risk management brings together the various business functions to work side-by side, just like the bass helps brings together the musical elements of the band.
- Continuous improvement-based - Learning to play bass is like learning most things. You need to walk before you run. This means first learning how to play with a steady rhythm, and playing the root notes of the chords. Then more advanced techniques can be added. When learning a new song, it’s usually best to develop a simple way to play it, then over time refining how you play it. This is similar to EHS where the goal of the management system is continuous improvement. A good starting point is to achieve compliance, investigate incidents, and take corrective actions. Then a proactive risk management approach can be added, and perhaps more sophisticated sustainability initiatives.
Effective EHS management is as essential to a manufacturing organization as a good bass player is to a rock band. Poor EHS management will undermine operating performance, just as poor bass-playing will make a band sound bad. So next time anybody questions the value of EHS, picture yourself standing tall on stage, driving the music and helping the whole band work in harmony to making sweet manufacturing music.
I’m thrilled to be here at LNS Research, and looking forward to working with many EHS business leaders and technology solution providers…and of course to continuing on my bass playing journey!
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