My dad always said to me, ‘use the right tool for the right job’. But what happens if we are always holding the same tool?

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap.

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course, welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

I’ve shared with you before some of the most impactful lessons I’ve learned in my life, which have come from my parents. That’s from episode 119, called The #1 Question. My dad’s was, ‘measure twice, cut once’. An old carpenters mantra, my dad, not being a carpenter, seemed to be a great teacher because he himself was a kind of novice with tools and physical stuff.

Right tool for the right job

Another less, not so much an idiom but more or a general rule, was ‘use the right tool for the right job’. Opening a paint tin with a chisel? Na-uh.

A little kid classic, is when you get sick and tired of all the back and forth of using a cross-cut saw, you just hit the wood with the saw like it’s some kind of enormous axe. Not on.

And probably the most frequent of all, is the combination of a hammer and something else. Screwdrivers are not designed to be used like a chisel by hitting the end of the handle. The claw side of a claw hammer is not designed to be used like a hammer, scraping or breaking something up.

No, the claw on a claw hammer is designer to lever out nails. And the obvious one, is that the big fat flat side, that is for hitting thing, and is particularly good at driving a nail into a piece of timber. Hammers, at least claw hammers, are for nails – putting them in, and taking them out.

Our toolkit

We have a bunch of tools in our professional toolkit. Many of them are pretty common amongst us, things like risk assessment, investigations, and audits. Some of us have specialised toolkits, like occupational hygiene assessments of one kind or another. In my early career I trained as an acoustical scientist, so that was a more specialist kind of tool in my professional toolkit, though it’s pretty rusty now. Others of us have skills in facilitation, or process engineering, or infection control, or traffic management, or dangerous goods.


So many of these tools are the right tool for a certain job. The trouble comes either when we start using a certain tool for a job it wasn’t designed for, or when we don’t realise that the tool we thought was good for the job might have been replaced by better tools, and we haven’t even realised. 


What do things look like to you?

In 1966 Abraham Maslow, yes, that famous Maslow of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, is quoted as saying “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail”.

The saying predates both these men, but they gave prominence to the importance that we reflect on the tool we have in our hands, and what it means for how we operate.

When I say tool, I mean any literal or figurative thing that we do in the process of doing our work. A tool might be a system, a kind of meeting, a report, a process, a slogan or even the language we use. I was talking with a senior leader from an organisation which has realised they can and should get better at learning, which is a particular focus of mine as you know. In the same breath, I heard stories of how there are frequent triggers in this organisation for workers, frontline people, to be ‘written up’. This conjures up a police ticket. What it is in practice, is a formal letter of warning, using strict and punitive and threatening language, sent from a senior manager, and put on your HR file. These letters are a tool, maybe like sticking someone else in the eye with a sharp stick, but a tool nonetheless.

So when it comes to learning, we have a job ahead of ourselves.

The law of the Instrument

Back to The Law of the Hammer, otherwise known as the law of the Instrument, Maslow’s Hammer, or sometimes the golden hammer. This refers to a cognitive bias which means that we tend of default to using overly familiar tools. Other scholars have linked this to a kind of narrow-mindedness. This might be a narrow-mind about what tools we know exist, narrow minded about the tools we have in our toolkit without searching out for new tools, or maybe it’s truly that we have a toolkit available to us, but we default, or prefer, to use just one or a few tools most of the time.

The thing is that we can’t improve, we can’t change the way we think or the way we act, if all we are holding is a hammer.

Because everything will look like a nail.

Our tools filter is what we see

Committee’s are for engaging workers in health and safety, right? No. Committee’s are for consultation, which is a mechanism to formally provide workers with an opportunity to make their views and opinions known to management, after which management can do whatever they like. 

So let’s not get confused about committee’s as a tool and what job it’s meant to do.

Now that’s not so that that Committee’s can’t be amazing means of genuinely, cooperatively, and productively improving health and safety. They just might not be the best tool for the job.

The analogy I think of in this example, is a phillips head screwdriver, you know the ones with a cross-shaped head. It is possible to loosen or tighten a phillips head screw with an under-sized phillips head screwdriver, but even this subtle challenge of getting the the size of tool right, can mean the difference between a quick and efficient job, or a mashed up screw head and a bunch of frustration.

You’ve heard me talk before about how we confused much of what we do in the name of safety as activities with the goal of learning, things like risk assessment, investigations and audits. These are not good tools for those jobs! They do a bunch of other things really well, especially when you are facing a technical situation, these tools can be great. Define a problem, and work on solutions. If you have a well defined system with well defined technical operating parameters, by all means audit that thing, because you can and should confidently diagnose any deviation that needs attention.

But we live almost always in and amongst adaptive challenges. Where the situation is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And the options available to us are almost as numerous as they are confusing.

So what do we do?

Old tools, new tools, right tools for the right job

First, I encourage you to take time to look carefully at the tools in your hands, and in your toolkit. Think carefully about what this tool is, what are it’s features, its limitations, and the assumptions we make when we use this tool. 

Second, I encourage you to ask yourself and the people you seek to serve, how good is the product of our tools, what are we shaping because of the tools we use? Time and time again, I’ve helped people and organisations realise that it is really common that investigations breed oversimplification, blame, and fear. Time and time again, I’ve helped organisations realise the potential of engaging with various people inside their organisation – but it’s not in the form of a Committee.


Third, I want you to reflect deeply, and ask widely, what other tools are out there, which I might be able to try to build whatever it is you are aiming for. Our professional obligation is not to stick blindly with tools we learned decades ago, but to bravely entertain the idea that there is always a better tool to do the job we need to do.

Because if we don’t, then we’re not much better than a small child, walking around feeling mighty productive, as we merrily go around pounding everything we see.

Not everything is a nail. And we need a better toolkit than just a hammer, even if we have a few different kind of hammers in there.

I’m starting a new learning teams implementation case study group soon. What’s inside the can is exactly what’s on the label. It’s not training, it’s implementation. It’s about learning teams, because many of us can benefit from that additional tool in our toolkit. And it’s a case study group, because every single person in the group will become a case study of success – no irrelevant examples from someone else’s life – it’s you, in your situation, making your own success. It’s a model of change that has proven to be phenomenally impactful and successful. We’re starting soon, if you want to know more, send me an email to and I’ll get you the details, along with our money back guarantee.

Here’s your FREE reflection worksheet from this episode.

And here’s your FREE download of the full transcript of this episode.

Feel free to share this with your team/colleagues!