September 15, 2019

The BBS Dilemma Part 1

What’s wrong with BBS … and is it possible to fix it?

This is the first in a series of four segments about the shortcomings of Behavior Based Safety (BBS), and decision options for leaders to consider from various starting points. The goal of this series is to inform leaders of optimal strategies for getting the most out of whatever “behavior based or human performance” safety improvement approach is being considered. 

Part 1

How to think about BBS: The Dilemma

If you think BBS is all good or all bad you are wrong. If you think Human and Organizational Performance (HOP) will solve all your problems in the general realm of making the workplace safer, you are also wrong.

Most estimates show that about 75% of companies in the US have a “BBS” process of some kind. For many of these organizations the cost-benefit ratio may appear to be out of balance. BBS takes up scarce resources for sure, but the benefits are less clear. Incident rates may be declining, but SIFs may not be. Engagement of front-line employees may not be as strong as leaders thought it would be, and it may be very difficult to sustain. Leaders may be asking themselves: “Should we stop our BBS process? Is it dead? Do we have to redesign it?” “What about HOP?”

Like most controversial issues that get to the level of discourse within a community, there are “facts” out there–really opinions based on varied experience–that support different sides of the issue. But there isn’t much in the way of objective knowledge. There are some studies showing the effectiveness of BBS on reducing recordable incident rates, but later research on SIF has cast a different light on how important reducing recordable rates really is. I’m not aware of any outcome studies showing the effectiveness of HOP, but I’ve seen many organizations who are convinced they have benefited a great deal from learning HOP principles.

If you knew all that one needs to know to understand the BBS dilemma, you would see it isn’t a matter of all or none, but more when and how.  My experience is that a major gap exists between the intent of BBS efforts and the actuality of how organizations implement it. This is not a small issue, rather it is a pivotal one. 

Asking, “Is BBS good or bad,” is the wrong question. The right questions are more complex:

  1. In what ways has BBS helped or hurt the objective to make the workplace safer?
  2. When should a poorly implemented BBS initiative be killed?
  3. Can a mediocre BBS initiative be rehabilitated?
  4. If you are starting from scratch, under what circumstances is it reasonable to start a new BBS effort, and what will it take to do it right the first time; or is it better to start with a new approach altogether?

The answers to these questions depend on 1) what you mean by BBS and what your organization is actually doing, 2) how well you see the shortcomings of BBS, and 3) how your organization is able to change the way your leaders think about the role of behavior in safety.

The strategy you end up with should address all of these issues. You may be better off abandoning BBS altogether, but then how do you engage the workforce in a sustainable way? If you have a BBS process with some fundamental elements working well, you may want to rehabilitate it. What will it take to do that effectively? And there are circumstances when an altogether new approach should be taken.

The central theme here is the extent to which leadership understands how they influence safety improvement.   

The major shortcoming of BBS, even when done well, is that leaders tend to misunderstand it. This tendency is related to the word “behavior”. Back in the day, when I was leading a company that did extensive research and implementation of high-end BBS initiatives, I had long talks with labor leaders who opposed the BBS process vigorously. One senior labor leader, who I spent time with trying to find a way to implement BBS within represented organizations, said to me, “Will you change the name of your company, take out the word behavior?”

I was offended by the question. It seemed outrageous to me.  But I failed to realize that he was on to something really important. The word “behavior”, in the organizational world, brings with it the connotation of an old, tired, worn-out, and inaccurate conceptual model of how safety works. That model puts the behavior of the worker at the center, and by doing so brings implicit blame directed at the employee. This thinking has been around a long time and is still present at some very senior executive levels. One of the great things about HOP has been its potential ability to address this issue. To the academic mind ‘human performance’ and ‘behavior’ are closely related. But somehow one is less damaging than the other.

But even HOP efforts can tend toward the same worn out view that puts too much emphasis on the behavior of the worker.  You can say “don’t blame the employee” over and over, but some senior leaders, who make crucial safety related decisions, won’t understand it. You can emphasize the part of BBS or HOP that addresses using data to make the workplace safer, but some senior leaders won’t get it and will make decisions that undermine this crucially important piece. So, it isn’t just what the consultant teaches you to do, it is more importantly what leaders actually decide to do. For BBS or HOP or any other safety improvement approach, the most important factor is the understanding, decision making, behavior, and accountability of leadership. Ultimately the behavior of the worker is influenced, but unless and until leaders understand the safety impact of their decisions and behaviors, outcomes will be sub-optimal.

One senior executive leader put it this way in a recent conversation: “We own the behavior of the worker.” I relaxed a lot when I heard it because it told me he had some depth of understanding.  

This problem is not recognized by many consultants who offer services providing BBS programs, even the few good ones. The problem is present in every BBS effort, but it is much easier to control if you have a competent outside view working closely with leadership. How well do leaders understand how they influence safety in the workplace? How much variation in safety leadership capability is present in the organization? Has leadership decision making been studied? Do leaders understand the findings of SIF research and their implications? This outside perspective is important during the early stages, and less intensely but still crucially important on an ongoing basis. Without it you will see the inevitable drift, either led or allowed by leaders who don’t understand, and don’t know they don’t understand. This last part is most often overlooked, because the organization doesn’t want to become dependent on the consultant. Reasonable, but misguided unless you have the internal capability to assess and stay on track.

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