Many have reached out to me expressing how valuable they found "Pain Points Are Starting Points" from my latest book - 10 Ideas to Make Safety Suck Less. I wanted to share an abridged excerpt from the chapter - I hope you find it valuable.
If you have not read the "10 Ideas," do not let the title scare you away. Safety books tend to get a bad rap - rightfully so in many cases. But this isn't your normal safety book, and it is not just a "safety book" - it's not only 10 Ideas to make safety suck less, but also leadership, quality, environmental, patient safety, and on... it can be best described as a "better way to do business" book.
Here's the excerpt - enjoy!
Pain Points Are Starting Points
What is pain exactly? Beyond that achy back or tooth, that horrible jolt received after grabbing a hot pan from the oven, or that horrific sensation felt when stepping on a child’s toy in the middle of the night – What is pain, and what is its purpose?
The purpose of pain
Pain primarily functions as a defense mechanism, steering us away from harm. Pain provokes an unconscious physical response, and it is there to warn an organism that something is causing them damage and that they should do something about it – like remove our hand from that hot pan (Munro, 2015).
The importance of pain is pretty straightforward in this situation–we might not realize that we are touching that hot pan causing irreversible damage. While it is easy for us dream about a life absent of pain – no more headaches, stinging sunburns, of aching backs – pain is vital to our survival.
The purpose of pain in our work worlds
The purpose of pain points within our work worlds is not all that much different than why our bodies feel pain – pain is a signal that something is wrong, something is not working, and that there is a high likelihood of greater trouble on the horizon. Something is causing us damage, and something must be done about it. Like those stinging sensations experienced from grabbing that hot pan or stepping on that LEGO while in search of a midnight snack, our organizational pain points are trying to tell us something as well. Pain is often telling us that we need to act, that we need to fix, or that we need to stop doing whatever it is that is causing us pain.
While we experience pain as individuals directly from things like getting a sunburn or filleting ourselves open with a razor knife (I have a nice scar from that one), our organizational pain points often manifest as struggles, challenges, pressures, and the like. These pain points routinely present themselves as things like a piece of equipment that constantly breaks down, a process or rule that makes accomplishing work nearly impossible, understaffed jobs or projects, rules that do not make sense, the inability to obtain needed resources or supplies, and various other areas that create headache and grief for those trying to accomplish work.
Common organizational pain points:
• Things that are harder than they should be
• People can’t get what they need – tools, equipment, funding, help, etc.
• Frivolous rules and hard to follow policies
• Impossible to use procedures or guidance
• And many more…
As mentioned previously, pain points often sound like:
• That thing never works right…
• It’s way too hard to…
• I don’t know why we…
• It’s so dumb that we have to…
• We must make do with…
• We can’t get…
• And many more…
These pain points are often organizationally induced sources of annoyance and frustration for those trying to do the work – these pain generating problems have usually been created by our own hand. In most cases, we created these pain sources with the best of intentions. We had high hopes of rendering our workplaces a bit safer, more productive, more cost efficient, or a little “better” in some other way. We rolled out a new “something” or changed an old “something,” with little to no meaningful input from those that actually have to use or live with that “something,” and from our vantage point our “something” looks like a raving success. While we pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, our employees are forced to painfully adapt, create workarounds, make do, and figure things out, working within the new mess of problems we have created. We simply lack the right perspective, and we rarely seek it out.
One of the most notable differences between occurrences of personal pain and the pain that occurs within our work worlds is that we, as organizations (those up and away from where the actual work happens), do not experience these stinging and jabbing sensations directly. Unlike when we stub or toe on the couch or catch our shin on a drop hitch, those up and away in our organizations do not feel these pain sources directly. Those farther away from the coalface (those often wielding the most amount of power and resources to alleviate or minimize sources of organizational pain) cannot directly feel the pains felt by those at the coalface (those typically wielding the least amount of power and resources to alleviate or minimize sources of organizational pain). The CEO does not feel the pain of having to operate some new wonky and unreliable piece of equipment – they only see it as a cost savings. The safety director that issued a rule requiring the use of foam-lined safety glasses does not experience the pain of them constantly fogging up – they only see a greater level of protection. The manager or planner that understaffed a project does not have to work extra hours to ensure the job is completed on schedule – they only see successful completion of a project on time and under budget.
The pain sources within our companies that our workers face, whether they be organizationally induced, the result of outside pressures or influences, or born out of other complexities or complications of our industries or trades, must be acknowledged and deeply explored. To begin to do so, we must accept that we – those up through the organization – have a different vantage point, a different version of reality, then those getting the actual work done. By accepting this fact, and by leaning into the idea that we simply cannot understand the reality faced by those with their boots on the ground, we should begin embracing an extreme operational curiosity – a constant desire to seek to understand more about how work normally occurs. Learning more and more about normal work will allow us to uncover, and work with those that do the work, to better or remedy these points of frustration and grief.
Pain points are starting points…
“Where there is pain, there is growth…” Pain points are starting points, they often lead you towards rot that is buried deep beneath the surface. The operational pains that we see manifesting within our work worlds – these signals of deeper problems in need of attention – are windows into the challenges and struggles of normal everyday work. Pain points are usually symptoms of much deeper issues buried within the complex sociotechnical systems that make up our organizations – they are starting points for deeper exploration and learning. These whispers of “we have to make do…” “I don’t know why we…” and on and on, are learning rich opportunities we must not ignore or avoid. We must lean into these pain points, we must seek them out, and we must see to it that we learn deliberately, deeply, and often from those that experience them.
A few great questions for examining for pain points:
• What is harder than it should be?
• What is the toughest part of your daily job?
• What is the dumbest thing you have to do working here?
The use of learning explorations or learning teams is a phenomenal way to learn about the existence of, or more about, the pain points employees face in everyday normal work. But even a simple conversation goes a long way in discovering the existence of these headache and heartache generating difficulties faced by those getting shit done. As I wander from company to company, from location to location, one of my favorite things to ask is, “what is the dumbest thing you have to do working here?” Sure, it’s a little provocative, it’s most certainly not “corporate approved,” and it definitely earns me some strange looks while I’m waiting on my order at Starbucks, but it’s a deeply meaningful and powerful question. The thing is this, every person I ask this question has a near immediate response – those doing the work are typically quick to share their struggles, hardships, problems, and pain points. People are more than willing to give you the “raw and real” facts about their jobs, often they are just waiting for someone to ask – they are waiting for someone to demonstrate true curiosity about what it is they do, and the challenges they face while doing it.
Pain points and various other problems become painfully obvious after something bad happens. After something breaks down, something catches on fire, something explodes, or someone gets hurt. It is easy to look back and see these now “loud” signals of trouble that have grown into seriously not good outcomes. Do not wait for these faint whispers of failure-in-motion – indicators that things have not “gone wrong” but that they are “going wrong” – to grow into loud and glaring failures. These pain points and struggles will never present themselves to you on a silver platter, you must go out and actively seek to discover them. A simple conversation, one spent exploring something like, “what is the toughest part of your daily job?” is invaluable. If you want to know where things are painful, where things are nearing failure, where things are going wrong, a good idea is to simply go out and ask those nearest to the work.
Pain points are windows into deeper organizational issues and problems – they often lead you towards rot that is buried deep beneath the surface. We must be willing to pick away at these problematic scabs so that we can discover the festering infection that is so typically hiding beneath. We must acknowledge and set aside our desires to react, we must understand that we do not share the same reality as those doing the work, and we must embrace deliberate learning – learning is the only real tool that we have.
Pain points are starting points…
Could you use some help exploring these "starting points," or would you like to partner to operationalize Human & Organizational Performance within your company?
Ⓒ Sam Goodman, The HOP Nerd LLC, 2022
Munro, E. R. (2015). The Purpose of Pain. Science Features | Naked Scientists. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.thenakedscientists.com/articles/science-features/purpose-pain#:%7E:text=It%20provokes%20an%20unconscious%20physical,of%20nerves%20within%20the%20body.
(2019, December 3). Owww! The science of pain. Science News Explores. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.snexplores.org/article/owww-science-pain
Conklin, Todd. The 5 Principles of Human Performance: A Contemporary Update of the Building Blocks of Human Performance for the New View of Safety. Independently published, 2019.
Denial. (n.d.). Psychology Today. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/denial
Borschel, M. (2021, May 31). Why do people lash out? Monica Borschel. https://doctormonicaborschel.com/2019/08/21/why-do-people-lash-out/
Psychology Tools. (2022, May 17). Fight Or Flight Response. https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/fight-or-flight-response/#:%7E:text=The%20fight%20or%20flight%20response,body%20to%20fight%20or%20flee