Three Magic Words Every Facility Manager Must Learn to Say


Nobody likes to show weakness, especially in a corporation or business, least of all facility managers. As the guy or gal in charge, you’re “supposed” to know everything whenever executives or the staff on the production line come asking questions.

But the truth is that your site is complex, with a lot of moving parts and a lot of things that can go wrong with permits, policies, licenses, certifications, as well as your existing management systems.

Policies and regulations are always changing, as are business goals. It’s hard to keep track of it all and how it fits into your environmental, health, and safety program.

Although your goal as a manager is to know what your facility does and how you do it (from raw materials to finished products to waste materials), you can’t always go into the finer details. That’s fine, as long as you’re willing to do one thing when confronted with an unfamiliar situation:

Say: “I don’t know.” And then ask for help in solving the problem. You don’t have to go it alone.

Don’t be embarrassed or feel it’s a sign of weakness. As Mark Twain, said: “Personally, I learn from every mistake, and I intend to die a genius.”

Not only can you figure out the problem at hand, this will also help with facility planning, help you assess future issues, put preventative infrastructure in place, identify risks and liabilities, and allow you to avoid making past mistakes.

There are several ways to do this. One of the most effective is to have open lines of communication between sister facilities.

A great example of this is one client we worked with recently. Our contact was a process engineer, managing six sites across the country.

He had set up formal lines of communication between all of the facilities. Believe it or not, although these facilities conducted similar operations and were all part of the same company, they very seldom communicated with each other for assistance with an issue or problem! Imagine the resources that were left untapped as a result of this behavior. Thanks to this process engineer’s efforts, these facilities seldom face an issue that cannot be quickly resolved. For example, if a production line goes down at one facility and a critical spare part is needed, the first call is to the sister facilities to determine if they have this critical part in inventory. With this communication system in place, the production line could be up and running the next day instead of waiting for a delivery from the manufacturer.

In fact, these facilities could even exchange experienced employees, if somebody in a vital role was sick or on leave.

Not only that, but any concerns or important information that any facility discovered, for example, a more effective process or safety issue, is now freely shared among the six sites. Overall, these changes have made operations smoother, more efficient, and safer, with less chance of accidents, exposures, or liabilities. In addition, there is less stress associated with an issue or problem that may arise because each facility knows that they have immediate assistance available from their sister facilities.

Another way to better understand your facility is by gaining facility knowledge (a Core Four!). Seek out maintenance personnel, the guys on the line, and managers, especially those that have been around awhile for help in problem solving.

Often, they’ve dealt with an issue before. They intimately know the problem areas. Let them know they can come to you to express a concern without being called out as a “whistleblower”.

You should also look to another of the Core Four Requirements: Property History.

By using historical information, you can see how those incidents or issues might impact your facility today. Again, veteran employees are key here, as are any historical documents or photos you’ve got gathering dust.

Of course, you have to look to the present and the future as well. EH&S regulations are changing all the time at the local, state, and federal level. There is not enough time in the day to fully understand what regulations you need to worry about. Again, you have to say, “I don’t know,” and seek assistance. Aside from consulting with a counterpart at a sister facility, you can also:

  • Hire an environmental consultant.
  • Get help from an industry association, who provide information services to members.
  • Conduct regular internal audits to spot problems early.
  • Stay on top of regulatory trends.
  • Find relevant information online from regulator websites (as long as you know it’s not out of date).

That last resource, regulator websites, can be very helpful. They’ve boiled down long, technical, difficult to read regulations into guidance documents you can easily understand. Make sure you download these guidance documents for regulations that apply to your facility.

When it comes to regulations, we also recommend to all of our clients to always seek input from your legal counsel. Make sure everyone is on the same page as to what regulations apply to your facility and its operations.

Throughout all these processes, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know,” with confidence because soon enough you’ll have the knowledge you need to address important issues and you’ll build on that foundation every time you do it.

Make sure to document every bit of new information or procedure you come across, so you can easily reference it next time. That documentation (another one of the Core Four!) will help you recognize and prevent future issues, allowing you to be proactive.

One last thing… while you draw on others as a resource to help you solve problems, be sure that you make yourself available as well when your colleagues need help. It’s a two-way street.

It may be counterintuitive, but saying “I don’t know” can actually make you a better facility manager and improve your job security.

To help you remember to say, “I don’t know” and where to get help, I’ve put together a little cheat sheet of resources you can draw on for assistance. It’s a free download here:

The I Don’t Know Resource Cheat Sheet

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