Toolbox Talks: Three things to avoid when observing on the job site


If the company you work for doesn’t have your last name on it—in other words, you’re not  in the family business—then you likely had a supervisor at one time or another. If that supervisor was truly supervising, then he or she took the time visit the job site and observe how you performed your duties. Do you remember what those interactions felt like? There’s a pretty good chance these were not positive experiences. Nobody looks forward to the boss being in the field; we’re just hoping that everything looks good enough to encourage less frequent visits.

If you are now the supervisor and need to observe workers, here are three things you should avoid to make the experience as productive as possible.

Don’t do a drive-by observation. Engage.

If you don’t know, a drive-by observation is when you find a few moments in your schedule and decide to take a quick lap around the job site. You didn’t observe any of the work planning or job briefings; you’re just looking for activity to observe. You swoop in, make a few notes, and go check the box. Don’t do this. You need to talk with the workers to let them know you are there to help and not playing a game of gotcha. When you walk up unexpectedly, you have just inserted the human performance trap of distractions. The workers aren’t thinking about their work; they are thinking about what you’re seeing and wondering how long it will last. Observations aren’t a secret mission behind enemy lines; they are opportunities to improve through engagement. So don’t do a drive-by. Engage.

Don’t become a worker.

If you’ve worked your way up through the ranks, it’s likely that you are very familiar with the work being performed. You might know a few tricks of the trade or best practices, or might be inclined to show the workers that “you still got it,” or maybe you just want to help them finish the job. You need to resist the urge to do the work to avoid getting out of role. You might have the best of intentions, but this is no longer your role; your job is to supervise. You need to have the big picture view, and if you become a worker, you lose that perspective.

Don’t leave without giving feedback.

If you didn’t do a drive-by, this one should be easy. You have already opened the lines of communication, so giving your people feedback is just the next step. It doesn’t have to be a full post-job review, but they do need to know if their performance exceeded or met expectations, or if they have areas for improvement. In either case, the feedback needs to be immediate and specific. Don’t make them wait for an observation write-up to learn how they are doing. Don’t give them vague platitudes like “good job” or “it’s fine.” Provide specific feedback, on the spot, such as: “I notice everyone used their PPE correctly,” or “I appreciate how engaged everyone was in the pre-job brief.”

Maybe we will never get to point where workers are happy to see you in the field, but if you avoid doing a drive-by, becoming the worker, or leaving without giving feedback, maybe it can be a little more productive and little less painful for the workers.

Toolbox Talks offers quick insights and thoughts to use for your toolbox (tailboard) talks. Dave Sowers is a founding member of Knowledge Vine, a veteran-owned human performance training and consulting organization that strives to reduce the frequency and severity of human errors in the workplace. He has almost 30 years of experience in power generation and the utility industry. He is a veteran of U.S. Navy Nuclear Power Program and holds a bachelor’s degree in resources management and a master’s degree in both management and emergency management and homeland security.