September 22, 2019

The BBS Dilemma Part 2

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

This is the second 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 is an overview addressing how to think about BBS and its relationship to Human and Organizational Performance (HOP). Part 2 is about how BBS processes get killed, and when they should be abandoned.

Part 2

Who killed our BBS process?

We used to have a vibrant and effective BBS process at our site. A cross-sectional steering committee was highly credible, well trained, and showing progress. We tracked the number of action plans that came out of our analysis of observation data, looked carefully for enabled vs difficult behavior and had access to resources to make the workplace safer. Leaders understood what we were doing, from the site manager up several levels and down to the first-line supervisor, and they were supportive. Blaming employees was out of the question. The local union was engaged in the effort and supportive.

Now we have remnants. Frequency of observations is still high, but everyone knows they are pencil whipped. Observation frequency doesn’t predict anything and creates a culture of going through the motions. The steering committee has lost credibility and is no longer taken seriously. Leadership doesn’t understand what we were doing well before, so they haven’t a clue how to fix it. Some just say, “BBS failed”. Leaders talk mostly about when and how to kill it. One more initiative added to the dead pile.

What happened?

In a nutshell: Leadership decision making failed.

The influence of leadership churn on safety performance is a major factor, largely unrecognized. Over the last ten years we’ve had five plant managers, none selected for their safety leadership capability. Of the five, the one in place when BBS was started, understood the process and knew what decisions needed to be made to support it. The next plant manager had a different view of safety altogether.

He liked to say, “I can’t fix stupid”. He thought BBS was terrific, it would make it easier for him to avoid the difficult decisions related to making the workplace safer. His idea of safety improvement was to get the worker to behave safely. Isn’t that what BBS was all about? He was a strong supporter of BBS and his boss couldn’t tell knowledge from ignorance, because he didn’t understand it either. After that it started to fall apart. Another plant manager tried to resurrect it by giving prizes for observations. He had no idea what he was doing, literally. Observation frequency stayed high, but the effectiveness of the observation process diminished. It was a downhill slide from there.

I’ve seen this story repeatedly. Leaders who have seen BBS done well remember it. They saw a level of engagement they had never seen before. They saw culture change that really meant something, across levels. They saw authentic improvement with valid metrics. They also saw a gradual falling apart of the process their front-line employees had built and believed in. Other ideas came into fashion, some a needed response to the shortcomings of BBS. But by and large the level of engagement and effectiveness was short and unsustainable. So, they went on looking for the next silver bullet. 

W. Edwards Deming laid this all out 40 years ago, and it had an effect. Unfortunately, it seems to be a hard lesson for organizations to hold on to.

If you want to do a BBS process, start with leadership, at least two levels up from the site and one level down from the site manager. Don’t implement anything unless and until you have deep understanding and alignment of these leaders.

To request the complete four-part series, contact us.