Background: For decades, organizations have been using behavioral science in an attempt to improve safety performance. Their results vary: In one of our studies, first-year results of a behavior-based safety (BBS) initiative ranged from 100% improved performance (meaning the injury rate dropped to 0 for a year or more) to 83% worse performance (meaning the injury rate increased). The consultants leading these implementations and their client organizations wanted to better understand the reasons for the variation. What were the most successful organizations doing differently? What could any organization do to achieve the best possible outcomes with this process?

The Innovation Process: Answers to these questions emerged through a collaboration between subject-matter experts on BBS, a research analyst, and sponsors from three organizations, each of whom made available people, data, and opportunities to visit their most and least successful implementations. After data were compiled and analyzed, results were shared with the group of experts and sponsoring organizations who then developed strategies to apply what they had learned, both individually and collectively.

Immediate Results: The most immediate insight that benefited all participants in the study group was the crucial role site managers played in the success of their BBS implementations. Site managers with strong safety leadership capability achieved better results, a lot better. Organizations began to focus on leadership in a different way. Leaders we given training and a more concrete role in the processes run by front-line employees. As a result, organizations began to develop safety roles and responsibilities for people at every level. Steering Committees began to periodically meet with site managers to share information about risk exposure and to ask for the help they needed to reduce it.

Long-Term Results: This insight transformed the consulting firm’s approach: they started to focus early in the intervention process on safety leadership and eventually built leadership assessment and development into their offerings. When organizations integrated safety leadership with their BBS implementations, the firm reported that its clients could expect significantly better outcomes when compared to behavior-based safety alone.