“If this happened at home, would you go to the hospital?”
This was the third question that occurred to David when his warehouse manager stepped off a platform onto a loose rock and rolled his ankle. For the sake of his numbers, David was hoping the answer was “No.” David had attended incident response training and knew his first two questions needed to be “Are you okay?” and “What happened?” After that he was off script and asked whatever question came to mind. And what was top of mind for David was mitigating the impact on his safety scorecard.
This was David’s top concern, despite the hours he had invested to learn that his job as a safety leader was to show care and concern above all else. And David had indeed learned that, but he had also learned that the best way to get unwanted attention was to miss the marks on his scorecard. Just one medical treatment case would send his numbers into the red for months. He would be hearing about it in every safety meeting until his numbers were diluted by the passage of enough time without further events. For David, the scorecard had come to define what “good performance” looked like.
Incidents weren’t the only thing David had to manage on his scorecard. He had 23 other things he had to do every month to keep his scorecard in the green: safety walks, observations, meetings, conversations, and training people on the new incident investigation protocol, to name a few. He always got them all done. And he had been richly rewarded for it. People stayed off his back. They didn’t require explanations. They let him focus on other things that kept him up at night – like the onslaught of new government regulations that plagued every business in his industry. Furthermore, his approach seemed to be working. David’s department was small enough that people were rarely hurt, which generally kept the scorecard pristine. That seemed to reflect David’s diligence. And when they were hurt, David’s faithfully-completed scorecard allowed him to say to himself and everyone else, “I’ve done everything I need to do. I’ve checked every box. I’ve met every expectation. So if someone was still hurt after all that, well, they need to be more careful.” It was a convenient explanation. At least, in the short term, it was convenient for David.
The ironic thing is that managing a scorecard is every bit as much work as managing safety for real. David felt like he was working really hard for safety. It wasn’t easy to get people to do JHAs before they started work. It was never easy to find time to do his safety walks. It was almost impossible to schedule people for safety training and still cover their shifts. Sometimes David had to pull double-duty just to get by. These things felt like a burden to David – they were hard to get done and David instinctively knew they weren’t effective. But a green scorecard was important, and so he delivered a green scorecard.
It’s no surprise that David had come to equate “safety leadership” with “scorecard management,” and it wasn’t David’s fault. David was smart, capable, and had learned through experience which efforts were viewed as successful, which were not, and which efforts went unnoticed altogether. David wanted to perform well and so he delivered the best work he could, given all that he had learned about how to be successful.
It’s tempting to say, “David just doesn’t ‘get it.’” And it’s true that he doesn’t. But if you really “get it,” then you understand that David’s behavior was the product of his organization’s systems and culture. Sure, you could coach David to be a better safety leader, but until something changed to change his environment, efforts to change David would only frustrate him, he’d leave, and the next person in his position would do the exact same thing. His peers probably already were doing the exact same thing.
If your leaders are managing their safety scorecards, it means something is fundamentally wrong with your safety system and culture, both owned by your senior leaders. Any system implemented without the right kind of leadership will quickly degrade. If your system has degraded to the point where your scorecard is the main focus, then “good in safety” will mean “green scorecard” and that’s all that it will mean. People will have forgotten what really matters.
What really matters is reducing exposure to risk: That’s what makes the workplace safer. Systems exist in order to make that happen. The scorecard exists in order to measure the health of the system and in its place it has value. It should not be the tail that wags the dog.
Being “good at safety” means being good at using systems to identify, control, and reduce exposure to risk. Being a good safety leader means being good at creating the environment in which those systems are healthy and in which other people are motivated to use them well. The capability, skills, and motivation that arise as a result aren’t isolated to safety. They generalize to other aspects of the business. Eventually, they impact the whole business.
So, how do you get your leaders to focus on an effective safety system instead of the scorecard?
First, consider blowing up your scorecard. Really. You hate to do it – you’ve got a lot invested in it. Plus, the scorecard itself is not inherently bad. Scorecards have a crucial role to play. But your scorecard has become not a tool for measurement but a goal in itself; it’s been compromised. It just isn’t working. It’s been infected by a toxic culture, and unless you’ve got some heavy-duty IV antibiotics for it, a major overhaul may be required.
Second, embed feedback loops in your safety system and tools. When someone completes a JHA, an inspection, an incident investigation or a safety observation, create a mechanism for that person to receive feedback on how effectively they used the tool. Maybe not every time, but often enough to ensure the skill and confidence are there, and then often enough to inspire excellence. As a side benefit, building confidence and competence are motivating: One of the best ways in my experience to increase the number of safety interactions is to provide 1:1 feedback on interaction quality. So by focusing on quality, you can get quality, quantity, and effectiveness.
Third, focus senior leaders on their own safe decision-making and interactions. Safe decisions drive the systems. Human interactions create the culture that makes the systems work. Systems and culture are driven from the top, which means senior leaders need feedback loops, too. Create a mechanism for senior leaders to discover the quality and impact of their own decisions and interactions. For some, this means coaching. For others, this means inviting feedback from safety professionals, direct reports, indirect reports, and contractors. One of a senior leader’s greatest assets is an army of employees who will tell her “what is.”
And finally, if you do keep a scorecard of any kind, wield it carefully. Find ways to support the red and challenge the green. Supporting the red means finding ways to assist when a group is struggling: using your own leadership skills to refocus and motivate. Challenging the green means that it matters how a group achieves its numbers. Verify the quality of work and the health of the safety system before rewarding green.