Mistake Monday – Solo Cups & Gas Caps

Sometimes “use your best judgement” is WAY more subjective than you think.

I had a very “creative” mechanic who struggled with the concept of safety. Let me explain what that means in more detail…

One cool, Thursday night, I went to check on Manuel, one of my vineyard spray drivers. As he was beginning his shift, putting on his PPE, mixing the chemicals to spray, I was checking the tractor to make sure all was in working order. As I walked around the tractor I noticed a tail light was out. I checked the housing and didn’t see any cracks or issues. Next, I leaned against the side of the tractor following the wiring to see if that was the issue. As I leaned against the tractor, I knocked off something. I looked down and saw the bottom of a clear, plastic drinking cup on the ground.

I called Manuel over and asked about the cup. He took the cup from me and without hesitation said, “Oh yeah, that’s the gas cap” and proceeded to put the cup on the neck of the gas tank. You know, where the ACTUAL gas cap should be. Obviously, I asked MANY more questions. Manuel explained that our mechanic put the cup on the gas tank about a month ago. I asked Manuel if he felt safe operating this tractor without a gas cap. He replied, “No”and we agreed he would switch tractors until the actual gas cap was replaced. This killed about an hour to switch out tractors, but that was absolutely okay with me because most importantly, nothing CAUGHT ON FIRE or killed any PEOPLE.

My next move was to call our mechanic, Rigo. Sadly, that conversation did not go well. Rigo explained that the gas cap in stock at the dealer was $60, and he was certain that I didn’t want him paying $60 for a gas cap when he could find one for $20. While it’s true that I told him to be mindful of expenses and use his best judgment, I had ZERO intentions of operating a tractor with a plastic cup as a gas cap to save $40. I also explained to him that ANY unsafe repairs of equipment would result in his termination. AND if he was ever uncertain about what “safe” meant, call me.

Expectations vs. Reality

Yet, that wasn’t a scalable solution either. Sometimes I forget that every person is different. I can say the identical words to each employee and the result is different. For my mechanic, the phrase “use your best judgment” was insufficiently clear for how I wanted him to operate. I devised a better solution. One that ensured control was given to the person whose safety was at risk, which in this case, was the tractor driver not the mechanic.

I implemented a Pre-Shift Equipment Safety Check List; just half a page, checking tires, tracks, linkages, lights, seat belts, door seals, oil levels, gear shifting, oil plugs, hydraulic connection plugs, AND gas caps. If any problems were found that the tractor driver deemed ‘unsafe to operate’, the tractor would be locked out and sent to the mechanic’s shop. No preguntas! [No questions!]

In the back of my mind, I had an inkling that this gas cap situation was a sign of more problems. Sure enough, about a week after I implemented the checklist, there was a line of tractors at the mechanic shop. I even had to call a mobile mechanic from the dealer to help fix all the problems before we ran out of safe, working tractors. It took about 3 weeks to get all the repairs completed and all tractors back in safe, working order. BUT safe became very clear when I gave the drivers the power to shut down a tractor and when I made sure the mechanic had to see the tractors piling up at his shop.

Lucky Failure Is Not A Repeatable Option

As managers, owners, and supervisors, we have a crucial role in ensuring our employees have clear expectations and are safe. Since I can’t be everywhere all the time, incentives and autonomy are huge tools that I think are frankly more powerful than anything I can ever say. I always thought that what I said mattered a lot, but sometimes, people use plastic cups as gas caps and put others at risk for injury and harm. If I have to say how that’s bad, then I failed; failed by not deploying the proper incentives and employee autonomy; failed by instructing the mechanic to only watch out for the cost without specifying safety ALWAYS comes first.

The sustainable and scalable solution was to empower the tractor drivers and remove much of the judgement from the mechanic. Mechanical repairs are less about creativity and more about following very specific steps. Thankfully, all it took for me to completely appreciate that was a plastic solo cup, not a tractor bursting into flames. I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t a good deal of luck avoiding that outcome. That cup was on that gas tank for a month – over 200 hours of tractor time – before I caught it. ‘Exceedingly thankful’ is an apt description of how I feel about it today.