Why Workplace Signs are a Bad Sign

By: Matthew Grant

Every Friday, Bluefield has a Weekly Lessons Learned meeting, where we share what we’ve learned during the week and how we can apply it to improve the way we work.

(We’ve previously shared some articles about specific learnings from these meetings; read them here and here).

In a recent meeting, one of my team shared a story about a conversation she had with a tradesman in the building where she lived. The tradesman, who had been working in the building for some time, made a comment about a sign that had recently been posted in the foyer asking people to be considerate of making too much noise.

The tradesmen observed that he can always tell the general standard of behaviour in an apartment building by the number of signs at the entrance. The more signs that have been posted, the worse the behaviour in the building is likely to be!

It got us thinking – things are exactly the same at work. Workplace signs are a bad sign.

To be clear, we’re not talking about informational signs, such as where PPE is required to be worn, or indicating confined spaces or lifting/jacking points. These are useful (although we should always remember that they are an administrative control, and therefore never 100% effective).

What we’re talking about are signs telling us how to behave. I’m sure we’ve all seen them:

 

“Put the tools back on the tool board when you’re finished!”

“Don’t leave your dirty dishes in the sink!”

“Wash your hands when you’ve finished in the bathroom!”

 

I’m also sure we’ve all seen much weirder ones, too……

What these signs really are is an indicator of culture. They had to be put up because someone didn’t put the tools back on the board, or put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher. If there was a great culture in the workplace, nobody would need to put up signs, because everyone would already be doing the right thing!

A lot of the work we do in Bluefield is helping clients improve their work execution quality, a topic we’ve written about before. In our experience, successful teams have:

  • People with complementary skills;
  • People who are committed to common goals; and
  • People who are committed to an approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

It’s this final point that’s critical. Many sites have the first two, but it’s this culture of mutual accountability that really drives performance and reliability. The sites that have this mutual accountability don’t need signs to tell them what the expected standards are.

To finish – why don’t you take a quick look around your own workplace? How many signs do you have up?