Episode 15: Prepare for Surprise in Vegetation Management w/ Lewis Services’ Beth Lay

Welcome to the 15th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management!

Trees and Lines Podcast Transcript – Episode 15

A conversation with Lewis Services, Director of Resilience and Reliability, Beth Lay

Tejpal Singh, COO, and Dr. Phil Charlton, Principal Advisor, at Iapetus Infrastructure Services

Tej Singh: Welcome back to another episode of The Trees and Lines podcast. Beth Lay, director of Resilience and Reliability at Lewis Services joins us to talk about innovations in safety, how safety is constantly evolving, and what defines success for her. We had a great conversation with her. Have a listen. Hope you enjoy.

Philip Charlton: Welcome Beth. It’s great to have you with us. We’ve been looking forward to this episode. Before we get started, would you give us just a little brief intro about your background, what you’re doing today, and let us know who you are.

Beth Lay: Sure. Thank you. I am the Director of Resilience and Reliability at Lewis Tree, and I know that’s a somewhat unusual title.

In fact, it’s a fairly new title for me, but it really fits exactly what I do. My background is resilience engineering and highly reliable organizing. I also have a degree in cognitive science. I’m a mechanical engineer and I’ve worked in the domain of human performance and resilience engineering/risk management for a lot of years now, and so I guess that’s my background.

I’ve had an opportunity to work in a variety of industries, a variety of places, but mostly in the energy industry.

Intro to resilience engineering

Philip Charlton: Okay. I’m a forester, so help me out here. What’s resilience engineering?

Beth Lay: Oh boy, that’s always my favorite question and also the hardest question to answer. Resilience engineering is about engineering systems that respond well when challenged.

You can think about traditional safety and human performance being able to manage work as it’s normally occurring. But we know with highly variable work, or when you’re working in the extremes of environments, that you’re always going to be surprised. Resilience engineering is a lot about how you prepare to be surprised.

I know that’s a strange thing to think about, but it’s realizing how often we’re surprised and then being ready for it. Being ready to manage that surprise by being flexible, by adapting not only your systems, but helping the people be ready.

Tej Singh: Beth, do you outsource this for children? I have a eight year old and a three year old and I’d love to apply that system to them if possible.

Beth Lay: No kidding. Yeah. It’s so funny that you say that because a lot of people have told me that they apply some of the practices that we’re using in their personal lives. Including asking the question often, “what surprised you?” Try it this evening!

Tej Singh: I think I’m going to. This is going to be the most informative part of my day. Maybe you could just give us a little snapshot of your career. You mentioned you have been in the energy industry. Maybe just take us through a few of the key kind of places that you implemented some of these structures. What was the impact where you are now? Are you agnostic to industry? Have you been able to commoditize it and apply it, where you get effective results regardless of whether we’re talking about healthcare, energy, the tree business, etc. I’d be very interested to see the evolution of that.

The journey to human performance

Beth Lay: I’ll describe it as best I can. I started out as an engineer at Siemens Energy when it was still Westinghouse. One of my first roles, where I really began to implement some of the ideas, was when I stood up a risk management group for field service.

These are the teams who drop in whole tractor trailer loads of tools and people to disassemble, inspect, upgrade, and modify the turbine (i.e., the heart of the power plant although some may disagree with me on that one). I stood up a risk management team who managed those types of projects.

We invented a process called Real Rapid Risk Assessment. Siemens trademarked it. Say you have a project manager on a power plant site who comes into some unexpected situation. We would always carry a cell phone and were on call 24/7. We would get a call and within an hour we would convene a risk assessment usually of around 10 people. It’d be a quick conversation where we explored the emergent risk and came up with a plan of action.

It was the weirdest thing because, once we started doing this . . . let’s just say we got a call on a certain topic. We would send out a note to a handful of people and say, “Hey, we need to know who’s got knowledge or expertise in this one area.” It was almost like magic. Within five minutes, ten minutes, we would’ve surfaced the exact expertise that we needed.

Sometimes we would already be in the risk assessment when the person would be identified and would call in. It was super-fast and a really effective way to identify knowledge as it currently exists in an organization. That was probably the first time that I invented a process that was really resilience engineering focused.

That was a little segue. Let’s go from there. At Calpine, I was the director of human performance where we were implementing human performance at all the power plants.

They had about 90 or so gas turbines at that point in time. While I was working as the director of human performance at Calpine, I got this call from NASA. I was sitting at my desk one day, it was lunchtime, and I get this call where, and the person says I’m from NASA Engineering and Safety Center, and just wondered if you’d be interested in exploring a project with us.

And I’m thinking, “Is this real life?” It turns out it was. The project was really interesting. It was essentially three years post an astronaut almost drowning during a spacewalk. They wanted to know the answer to the question, “could this happen again?” I was able to join a team to interview folks, including astronauts, and watch space walks for mission control, and look at it all from a resilience engineering perspective.

Safety differently

That’s how they found me. They were looking for someone who was practically applying the ideas of resilience engineering. Moving on from that, I ended up working at Lewis which is where I work right now. I work at Lewis because they were looking for someone who does safety differently.

Our CEO at that time, Tom Rogers, knew that what they were currently doing wasn’t working, which was heavy behavior-based safety. It only got them so far. He was looking for someone to lead safety in a different way, and that’s what drew me to Lewis. That began my experience in the vegetation management and line clearance world.

Since I’ve been there, I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of projects. One of the most interesting ones has been supporting a group called Subsea7. They repair oil platforms in the deepest steps of the ocean. For example, in the North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been able to work with a colleague, David Provan, in helping redefine what the principles of human performance and new view safety are based on the ideas of resilience, engineering, and highly reliable organizing.

Yesterday I had a super cool experience. I was just thinking about how I’ve had the opportunity to work the highest heights (i.e., outer space) with NASA and with Subsea7, the deepest steps of the ocean. And then yesterday I had the opportunity to tour the deepest salt mine in the United States. It’s at the bottom of Cayuga Lake, which is below where I’m sitting right now. I’m probably about 2,300 feet above the salt mine chambers as we speak, which is weird to think about. I had an opportunity to tour that salt mine yesterday and learn how Cargill is implementing safety and human performance.

Highly variable vegetation management work environments

Philip Charlton: Safety in the vegetation management arena must be a little different than traditional industry and some of the other things you did. So how are we different?

Beth Lay: The most significant way that safety and vegetation management is different is the high level of variability with the work. Every tree is different, and I heard that early on. And it’s endemic in our industry that we have a high level of turnover. We have a lot of new workers always coming into our business and the workplace. So we talk about work, worker, and workplace.

You can think about the workplace as the conditions that we’re working in, like the weather. We’re working outside in all kinds of elements. One of my colleagues from the Ohio State, Asher Balkin, when he was introduced to our work, said that our work is among the most highly variable he’d ever seen second only to the Special Forces. He said that to us early on in our journey at Lewis. We realized that traditional safety wasn’t going to work for us, and we had to figure out how to do safety differently. And that’s what we’ve been working on the past four years now.

Tej Singh: You mentioned salt mines and other environments. Where they during your time at Lewis?

Beth Lay: The salt mine was with my current role at Lewis. My current role is Director of Resilience and Reliability. We’ve had some challenges with people being injured by our own equipment. Essentially, I went to the salt mine to learn how they control the space around the equipment. It was a great opportunity for us to learn how to better manage that risk, as well.

Defining success in human performance

Tej Singh: How is your success quantified? Let’s say there’s a problem and they bring you in, right? And you are putting a process in place, a structure, a system. Then, as time goes on, you can point and say, “We started here and now we’re here.” What are those metrics that define success from your perspective?

Beth Lay: From my perspective, the way that we can define success is that we’ve had fewer serious injuries.

For example, when I started, we had just had a fatality. A person was struck by wood. We focused in pretty heavily on that risk. You can definitely tell that, over the past four years, we’ve had a reduction in serious close calls related to that, as well as serious injuries related to that.

That would be the most important way that you can measure success. You’ll have a reduction in serious injuries and fatalities. But that being said, the other ways that you can tell are probably more qualitative than quantitative. For example, it would be the conversations that occur.

Every week we have our safety leadership call. As part of that call, we review the close calls that came in the prior week. We usually get more than a hundred per week now, which is a huge accomplishment. The depth of learning that occurs during those conversations, the language that’s used which exemplifies new view safety, is one way that you can tell.

In fact, some of my colleagues from other domains such as naturalistic decision making, or other safety researchers have been part of our conversations. Time after time, one of the things I hear is they can’t believe how mature our thinking is and the conversations that they hear. For example, the conversations around how we manage uncertainty.

Leading the industry away from punitive behaviors to learning

Tej Singh: Congrats because I think that what you guys are doing seems ahead of the curve. Specific to your peer group, call it trimming or pruning-focused companies, do you feel that you guys are leading the industry in this area? Where do you feel you are relative to your direct peer group?

Beth Lay: I’m going to say that we are leading, and I have some grounding for making that bold statement. There was an industry conference recently, I wasn’t at this but I heard, where one of our competitors put up a slide with my photo on it. (Although leave this part out because I don’t want that!) but basically crediting Lewis for leading the industry and how we’re thinking about safety. Line clearance traditionally was pretty punitive. In fact, Lewis was punitive. If you violated a rule, you got an automatic three days off. I think that was a standard throughout the industry.

Philip Charlton: And now the industry’s definitely moving to a more of a role where we’re learning, we’re valuing people and what they bring to safety. It would seem that a close call reporting system and a punitive approach wouldn’t be real compatible.

Beth Lay: They’re not compatible. In fact, a really good way that you can tell if you’ve got trust is the quality of the close calls that are being reported. If you’re not hearing about hardly any close calls, then you know something’s probably broken because they’re occurring.

Now we’re at the other end of the challenge right now which, as I mentioned before, we’re getting more than a hundred a week. For a couple weeks, we’ve gotten about 130 a week. And they’re really good quality. They’re real close calls; serious things that have happened. The next challenge is what to do with that treasure trove of information because it is a gift.

The ROI of safety

Tej Singh: That’s really interesting. Now I’m going to make a bold statement in saying that “safety” is this very broad term. We all know it’s important. Every client, every company, every provider of it, rallies around the word. Where the inconsistency lies sometimes is, when it comes down to budgets, most of what of what I’ve observed is a very reactive approach.

Are you also selling the idea of the ROI and the cost side of safety? Because typically what I’ve found is they’re like, “Okay what is this going to cost me?” And even though we’re talking about safety, there’s a tagline of its importance, but how do I balance what’s important with the cost? Where has that factored in and how have you been able to be so effective and convincing with wherever you’ve gone?

Beth Lay: That wouldn’t have been my approach necessarily, but I can share with you some things that I’ve noticed about that.

One thing we’ve noticed over these past four years is that our EMR (experience modification rate) has gone down and it’s very low right now, which is an indicator of how much incidents are costing us. It’s an insurance industry rating, so we know that our incidents, and our total spend on incidents, have gone down.

And I think it’s pretty interesting and what seems unique to me in my experience in the line clearance industry, that when you do have a serious incident, in addition to the heartbreak associated with something happening to your team member, it can result in you losing work because contracts are based on our incident rates and such.

It’s very real: the link to profitability. The ability to work is very tightly linked to our safety record. From that standpoint, you have to think about that from a return on invest investment perspective, as well.

Tej Singh: That’s really thoughtful. You’re right. Let’s put the emotional and the sadness piece here because we know that first and foremost this is the most important thing, but from the cost perspective, you’re right, it’s insurance premiums and downtime. You are in a very high-risk business. On the line clearance side, it’s a high turnover industry. Getting the stickiness of culture and that transfer of knowledge. You’ve got a hundred people who you’ve spent time with, and they understand your culture, and now you’re swapping out 50, and there’s 50 new people. I can see that continuity being very challenging.

We see it from a very different perspective because we are not in the line clearance business. We are in the QA/QC business doing essentially every high value service around the conductor minus the actual pruning. Trimming, right? Phil, do you like how I’m no longer saying cutting. I’m very proud of the fact that and I’m trying to be like an industry leader here with the word pruning now, because I get into trouble from a lot of folks. It’s not cutting.

Beth Lay: I’m with you there Tej. I had to learn a new language, as well, when I came over. I’m still learning it.

Collaboration beyond the vegetation management industry

Tej Singh: What you’re doing is really innovative, very exciting. Is Lewis very open to having you and the broad organization partner with other industry peers to, collaborate, thought leadership, and continue to grow?

Beth Lay: Absolutely. That’s what led to my work with Subsea7 because the safety researcher is one of the leading global experts in human performance. David Provan, he studied under Sidney Dekker. We did a little bit of trading where David said he’ll help us internally and Lewis agreed for me to work with him on the project to support Subsea7. It was a win: win. We have an opportunity to learn from David and from Subsea7 and we have an opportunity to work together.

As I mentioned, one of the things we’re working on is applying what we’ve done at Lewis (some of the things that are innovative, and some tools that we’ve invented, for example). We’re coming up with a new set of principles for new view safety that are really grounded in the ideas of resilience engineering and building adaptive capacity. A move away or maybe I should say an expansion to the ideas of just managing error with human performance.

The Uncertainty Gauge

Philip Charlton: Are there any new programs or new tools that you want to tell us about that you’ve been working on?

Beth Lay: One of the tools that we’ve invented, which I think is working really well, is our Uncertainty Gauge. The idea behind the Uncertainty Gauge is that the things that are most likely to kill people are when they can’t control a situation or where they’re highly uncertain.

And I’m going to give Todd Conklin credit for that. I had an a-ha moment when I was reading one of his books on fatality prevention. The whole idea of the Uncertainty Gauge is that if you have a one (i.e., 1 out of 10), that means I can control the situation. I’ll use the example of felling a tree. If it’s at one, I’m pretty certain how this tree’s going to come down. If it’s a 10, it means that there are things about this situation that I can’t control. Maybe I’ve got dead wood overhead that I can’t reach and I’m uncertain how it’s going to come down.

We use this idea of the Uncertainty Gauge to help, first, notice when we’re feeling a higher level of uncertainty, and then as a signal to call for help. We usually raise it up to the general foreman and the general foreman might bring in a different piece of equipment or a crew with different skills to do the job. That’s one tool that we’ve invented that our general foreman love. Recently at a leadership meeting, they said that was their favorite human performance tool. I’m proud of that, to actually invent human performance tools that people use. It’s pretty simple.

Tej Singh: Beth, I know we were planning on spending time with you and doing a series like this with this being the first of a three-part series so we’re going to leave some of that stuff for the next time we’re together in our next recording.

Tomorrow’s resilience engineering leaders

Before we go for today, I have one more question and that’s more centered around you as a thought leader as you’re forging ahead on this resilience engineering path.

How are you thinking about the future in terms of the Beths who are coming up? How are you fostering the next group of thought leaders and the community so that the great work that you’ve led, and the foundation that you’ve built, gets carried on and built upon?

Beth Lay: I think most certainly within Lewis, the leaders within Lewis, once you adopt it, it’s a different way of thinking and a different way of looking at work. The questions that you ask are different, so they embody it at this point, and they will take it forward. Within Lewis, I’m really confident. Also, I’m the communications chairperson of the Resilience Engineering Association. We’re having a meeting in June, and we have a Young Talents group that we are bringing along. The Resilience Engineering Association is tightly associated with a couple of universities and university labs so that’s great to develop new leaders in this area.

Tej Singh: That’s great. Where are you based?

Beth Lay: I’m in Rochester, New York.

Tej Singh: Have you always been a New York-based person?

Beth Lay: No, I actually moved here from Houston.

Tej Singh: I’m in Houston. We moved here a few years ago. But I am Canadian, born and raised in the Toronto area, and then we were in New York City for a bunch of years, in a previous life. I came from more on the energy finance side of the world. But now my family and I are in Houston and Phil lives a lovely life splitting his time between Wisconsin and south Florida.

But how do you like Rochester?

Beth Lay: We traded spots, right? I really like Rochester. I’ve been surprised at all that it has to offer culturally. And I have also been surprised that I liked the snow again. I grew up in West Virginia, but I’ve actually enjoyed this snow for the most part except it snowed last week and now I’m done with snow. But I’m also finding that as I come back to Houston, I was in Houston last week for a human performance conference, that I really appreciate Houston more and more. My house, which I still have, is in Westmoreland Historic District. It’s within walking distance of downtown.

Surprise happens

Philip Charlton: Beth, when we started off, we talked a little bit about surprises and I know we always talk about things that never happened before and things that never happened before happen all the time.

You got any stories you want to share with us just as we leave?

Beth Lay: Sure. We had a team in Northern Pennsylvania that shared a close call with us recently and we talked about, as you said, the things that never happened before, happen all the time. I think this was one of those. We had a crew working pretty far out in the wilderness and they had an eagle fly over and drop a full deer leg that barely missed our workers.

Tej Singh: Wow. Oh, my goodness, a deer leg. Did you say a deer leg?

Beth Lay: Yeah.

Philip Charlton: Wow. Talk about a close call! Talk about what you don’t expect. An eagle dropping a deer leg.

Tej Singh: That has to be something that doesn’t happen often!

Beth, thank you so much for today and like I said, I can’t wait to build on this conversation in our next call. This was awesome. This was so interesting. Thank you.

Beth Lay: Such a pleasure to meet you both.

Philip Charlton: A pleasure to meet you as Beth. Thank you.

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