Forest for the trees

Pre-COVID, on the mornings when I walked from my car to the office, I passed an electronic sign showing the number of available spaces in three nearby car parks.  As a simple exercise to kickstart my brain of a morning, I tried to add up the total number of spaces in my head.  Not Newtonian physics I admit, but better than nothing.

What I noticed was on Monday’s and Friday’s, the number of available spaces would be 15-20% higher than Tuesday to Thursday.  I have my thoughts on why, but this isn’t a post about the parking habits of people who work in Parramatta.

What started out as a quick little brain exercise got me thinking about how we use (or more so don’t use) data to understand why things are the way they are, and more importantly – what then to do about it.

In my industry (civil infrastructure projects in Australia) we diligently keep, report and analyse safety data.  Some projects do this better than others which is to be expected, and often we only keep track of particular data sets because we’re told to.  Other captured metrics (physical progress, cashflow, etc.) are usually project- and often issue-specific, and any learnings from these are often lost to the sands of time.

Not a criticism specifically, simply an observation.

No, I’m being lazy.  It is a criticism of sorts.  How many times have you read a safety statistics report and been satisfied at the number of Toolbox Talks held, or the number of Safety Inspections, or any number of other simple metric?  Dozens,  hundreds perhaps?  You hit your Lead Indicator targets. You’re a winner! How many times have you then been provided with a metric measuring the level of engagement at Toolbox Talks, or the effectiveness of a Safety Inspection?  Five?  Ten?  Maybe. If you’re lucky.

As this is not specifically a post on the effectiveness of safety statistics, I’ll get back on track, but it has just been added to my list of ideas for future posts.


For several years in the mid-2000’s I worked at Sydney’s Port Botany on a large infrastructure project.  Our site sheds were jammed tight up against the container yard’s boundary fence, where thousands and thousands of shipping containers were lifted and shifted every day.

When we first mobilised, the wall of containers blocked out the sun.  As the project progressed further, our ‘harbour glimpses’ turned into ‘harbour views’, and these views turned into what seemed like ‘waterfront’ as fewer and fewer containers were parked on the yard and we could see the ships berthed at the far side of the dock.

It wasn’t until some wag came to the project late in the piece and said on his first day “Oh look, cool, a container ship out the window.  Don’t see that every day!”, we realised the change had happened.

We had thought nothing of it at the time, as it was so gradual it simply became the new normal.  Turns out (obviously), a decline in containers on the docks was a sign of a deflated economy, but it took a one-off comment from someone with a different (in this case, new) perspective to point it out and for us to make the connection.

Car spaces and container ships might seem an unlikely pairing, but it made me think we’re probably missing trends and opportunities for improvement because we’re not measuring or analysing the right things.  Perhaps we’re so entrenched in the detail, we’re asleep at the wheel?

And if we are, how do we wake up?

I know it’s hard to know what to look for when you don’t know what you’re looking for.  We hadn’t realised we could see the ships until someone told us.  But that’s the point.

Should you leave finding a new perspective to chance?  As leaders we should never leave things to chance.  As leaders we should be thinking of contingencies, of opportunities to facilitate and foster creative thinking – particularly in technical fields like engineering and science, and challenging existing ideas and ways of working.

If you can’t see a new perspective yourself, get someone to give you a new one.  Perhaps ask your design team to ponder on some construction logistics issues, or get your environment team to review a Safety Assurance Report, maybe ask one of your Graduates to review a procedure the team have used since the dawn of time and have forgotten to ask themselves if it’s still any good…you get the idea.

The video below is a great representation of what can happen when teams (or in this case monkeys) apply a “That’s just the way it is” mentality.

Don’t be a monkey! Consider how best to utilise the resources in your team more broadly than just their job title or work stream suggests.  Make some time to ask yourself the questions, “Why are we doing it this way?”, or Who can I ask for help?

At a recent planning session, the team here at Churchill Infrastructure decided to roll out a series of Immediate Action Drills, or IAD’s. IAD’s are used by military’s and organisations world-wide as simple, ready-to-go responses to particular stimuli.  In most of our day to to day lives, we’re (hopefully) unlikely to need an IAD for when an aircraft commences a strafing run at ground troops, or a patrol is ambushed and are trapped in the kill zone – but the Churchill IAD’s are simple takeaways you can action immediately for maximum impact.

As in, do it immediately after reading this post.

Which is now.

What process, procedure or activity have you chosen to get a new perspective on?  Drop a note in the Comments box below, or as always, you can reach out via the Contact Us page if you’d like to have a chat about anything in today’s post, or anything else for that matter.

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