March 26, 2024

Why Safety Directors Need to Become Better at Change Management

When I talk to safety executives, they often complain about their operational counterparts. In the eyes of the safety team, they have done their part in providing good technical solutions, and it’s up to the operations team to use them as intended. As one safety director put it: “The systems are in place, but not in use.”

The problem occurs when the safety team designs a system without input from the operations team. Let’s explore this problem through two examples: The first story below is about a safety improvement initiative that failed and the second story is about one that was successful.

How Your Change Initiative Can Fail

A few years ago, I was working with a globally specialized construction organization. This organization was highly committed to safety, even before our engagement. For example, they would turn down work if they felt that the client did not value safety.

Despite their commitment to safety, they were still experiencing accidents, some of which resulted in serious injuries. Following an initial assessment, the CEO and the corporate EHS director agreed on a strategy to reduce the exposure to serious injuries and fatalities. This strategy contained a corporate component as well as a local one, where safety leadership development would be deployed at the country level.

The initial roll out was piloted with four business units (BUs) across the globe. Having the backing of the CEO, I was optimistic that the initiative would be a success; however, just nine months later, one BU had stopped all together, another was barely progressing, and two were just going through the motions.

So, what happened?

The CEO – who had many years with the organization – was newly appointed and was still establishing himself in the position. Historically, there was a heavy reliance on the entrepreneurial skills of the local BU general managers to build operations and develop the local markets. They were used to making strategic decisions on their own and without interference from the top (provided they hit their numbers).

Additionally, when the strategy was rolled out, the general managers had accepted the program (since it was a directive from their new CEO), but they were never really engaged. The general managers didn’t like the program being imposed on them, didn’t see how it would help them with their overall objectives, and felt that the program was not adapted enough to their organization. All in all, participation from the BUs was lackluster at best.

One of the key requirements when managing change is broad alignment and ownership at the top leadership level, and this was missing in our approach.

How Your Change Initiative Can Be Successful

Another time, I was working with another organization in the construction industry. The CEO of this organization also began by defining the need to create a fundamental improvement in safety performance. The need was determined after reviewing the results from an overall analysis he had requested to define their overall business strategy.

One finding from the analysis was that many of their clients valued the safety performance of their suppliers over cost. With the realization that they could win projects, even when not the cheapest supplier, the CEO decided that an investment in safety would mean they could increase their margins. It didn’t take long for the CEO to convince his leadership team that a fundamental change in safety was needed.

The CEO then created a governance team that would oversee the safety improvement initiative. This team was led not by their corporate EHS director, but by one of their BU presidents. The corporate EHS director was part of the team, as were other key senior leaders, including their HR and communications directors. The seniority and constellation of the governance team created instant credibility and acceptance of the solutions being proposed throughout the organization.

We then performed a broad assessment highlighting the areas of opportunity, and supported the client in creating a compelling behavioral vision of the future. The client transformed this into behavioral values, as well as role-specific behaviors for all employees and managers.

The communications director then started to work with his team and created a broad campaign designed to be used throughout the safety improvement journey and beyond. A broad safety leadership development program was developed to bring all leaders along the journey, and by now, safety leadership development has become an integral part of the overall development that any new leader needed to go through.

It’s no surprise then that today, almost 15 years since the CEO demonstrated the need, that the values and role-specific behaviors are still in place. With that fundamental change having taken place, everyone in the organization can now clearly articulate their role in safety.

What is the Difference?

In both above examples, each had a seemingly good approach (directive from the CEO) and solution (develop safety leadership), yet one failed and one succeeded.

An early 1990’s study conducted within General Electric on best practices in change management showed that an initiative can fail despite a good technical solution or approach: “100% of all changes evaluated as successful had a good technical solution or approach. 98% of all changes evaluated as unsuccessful also had a good technical solution or approach.”

The key difference between successful and unsuccessful change is actually in the level of acceptance of the change. This is what the company in the second example focused on, and they did it well.

Components of a Successful Change Initiative

Through our experience at Krause Bell Group, combined with a broader exploration of change management principles, we’ve distilled the essence of successful, sustainable change into six critical components:

  1. An inspired vision and defined new state of performance.
  2. A detailed understanding of the gaps to the aspirational future.
  3. Broad alignment and ownership at senior and/or executive level.
  4. A governance team which has the authority, desire, and right capabilities.
  5. A strategic and tactical transformation plan that provides the roadmap and resources.
  6. Integration of the desired ways of working in existing systems, processes, and practices.

As you may have guessed, the change initiative success story from above incorporated each of these critical components.

Key Takeaways The next time you want to implement something new in safety, make sure that your approach and solution are technically good, then spend most of your time creating acceptance of the change – this is often easier said than done.

Why Safety Directors Need to Become Better at Change Management

March 26, 2024


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