June 15, 2019

Developing a Safety Improvement Strategy: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, we talked about the importance of having a carefully planned strategy for how your organization will approach safety improvement. We pointed out that many great organizations who are serious about safety improvement, surprisingly, don’t have a coherent, over-arching Safety Improvement Strategy.

Here we go on to Part 2: What should your improvement strategy for safety look like and how do you prepare yourself and your organization for successful execution of the strategy?

Approach answering these questions with some caution. It would be easy to inadvertently undermine your objective by getting this off your plate too quickly, thinking you had done it, and really just adding another layer to the problem. Since the strategy issue is of crucial importance, it is worth giving it some careful thought and planning.

At the risk of sounding (and being) self-serving, I suggest that you start with reading the book Kristen Bell and I wrote, 7 Insights into Safety Leadership. Understanding the 7 Insights will give you a basis and grounding for the formation of the strategy. If you are not familiar with our book or these insights, here is a brief summary:

7 Insights into Safety Leadership

  1. Good safety is good business. Fine, but how does it actually work? How does improving safety improve business overall? (See answer below).
  2. Serious Injuries and Fatalities are the first order of business. Great, but how do we really know if we are addressing SIFs in an effective way?
  3. The strongest improvement opportunity you have is to increase safety leadership capability. Starting with what level? In what way? What does it take to really do this effectively?
  4. Understand how it is that you as a leader create the culture you have right now. Not the one you want – the one you have. You created it. Really?
  5. Understand how safety improvement systems work. It’s easy to think, “Don’t I know this already?”. Not sufficiently. Many, if not most, EHS professionals don’t either, although they recognize it when it is pointed out.
  6. Understand the role of behavior. You may be thinking, “Sure, I’ve got that.” The truth is that – no – you probably don’t. It’s more complex than you think. Understand that the employee is the solution, not the problem.
  7. Safe Decision Making is pivotal to safety improvement. Almost no one sees this one because it is new. Ground-breaking research has opened a whole new way of thinking about it. In a few years we will be talking about this approach every day.

With these Insights to stand on as principles, you are in a position to start thinking about building a Safety Improvement Strategy.

The process begins with a clear delineation of Objectives. In concrete, measurable terms, what is it that you want to accomplish in the safety area? What would satisfy your constituencies and make everyone feel terrific about the accomplishment?

Improve the safety culture” is the objective we hear most frequently. It is a good objective, but is it clear what that actually means to leaders in your organization?

You might be surprised if you could look into the heads of representative levels of leadership and see what leaders actually think this means. To some it means lowering the OSHA Recordable Rate. To many who are a bit more sophisticated, this definition doesn’t make any sense at all, but if it is in the thinking of your leadership you need to address it. Yes, you want measurable outcomes. No, you can’t rely on Recordable Rates alone.

It is helpful to distinguish ‘organizational culture’ from ‘safety culture’. The former usually means things like communication, teamwork, leadership credibility and so on. We know from the research1 that these factors are not, strictly speaking, safety factors, but we also know they predict good safety outcomes. They are important for safety performance and they are also important for production, quality, turnover, and a host of other crucially important outcomes. (This is the answer to the question about Insight 1, above).

To other leaders, “improving the safety culture” means improving the value that employees have for safety generally, and how strongly they think the organization as a whole has this value. Does safety excellence really matter around here, or it just lip service? Talking about it is relatively easy, but if the words don’t square with the way leaders make decisions, you are better off staying silent.

A good statement of objectives would include improving the organizational and safety culture, understood as outlined above.

Now, how will you know when that happens? How will you measure improvement in organizational and safety culture? Should you look at the current safety climate, or the longer-term safety culture? You may already have data that informs some aspects of this question, or you may need to develop a method to measure it.

New methods are available that are serious improvements over the worn-down surveys given year after year that are frequently ignored by leaders. Ways to gather more real time indicators of how the culture and climate are shifting are being developed . You can get them off the shelf or develop them yourself. The latter is the better strategy, but it requires getting your leaders to understand the objective and how to approach it.

Whatever tool you develop or use should be reliable and valid, meaning that the questions mean something employees can recognize consistently, and that the measures get at the thing you want to understand. Tools are available that do both.

Having this first objective nailed down is a big first step. You don’t have to nail down all the answers to state this as an objective. It also sets the stage for the next objective, which we’ll discuss in Part 3.

1Krause, T.R. (2005) Leading with Safety. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Developing a Safety Improvement Strategy: Part 2

June 15, 2019


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