The BBS Dilemma Part 3
What’s wrong with BBS… and is it possible to fix it?
This is the third 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 3 is about the crucial role of leadership if BBS or any improvement strategy is to work well.
What makes BBS work well?
A lot has changed since I wrote my first book on Behavior Based Safety in 1990. A trickle turned into a river, the contents of which are now about as muddy as you can imagine. Our intent in writing the book was to lay out the principles and concepts to inform and stimulate leaders to think about how safety improvement could be accomplished. We didn’t intend to convey that a leader could read the book (any book) and then understand everything they needed to apply the principles. What happened too often was that leaders looked at the book, talked to some others in the field to gather ideas, and then cut the heart out of the method and put the heartless remains in place, calling it BBS. “We did BBS”.
The steps outlined in that first book included 1) identifying critical behaviors derived from analysis, 2) training employees to observe and give feedback, and 3) analyzing the data from observations to determine the extent to which behaviors were enabled, and developing concrete plans to address the conditions contributing to the behaviors that were not enabled.
This third step was pivotal to the effectiveness and sustainability of the process. But it depended directly on leadership’s understanding and willingness to make strong decisions. Kristen J. Bell and I studied this in depth and published our results. The findings were that recordable injuries declined year over year, and that some process variables predicted that improvement. Measures of safety culture also improved and correlated with measures of safety leadership effectiveness. A through line was shown, based on the analysis of hundreds of BBS projects. It connected safety leadership capability to safety culture and incident rates. At first it looked like observation frequency was the strongest predictor, but over time it became clear that leadership capability was the key variable, leading to a stronger safety culture that supported high quality action plans to make the workplace safer. Observation data became a bridge from the way work was actually being done, and the leaders who could address how to make it safer. Front-line workers provided the data and became engaged in the process. This is the same thing that HOP does well, even while claiming to be “new thinking”. But who cares if it is new or old, the main thing is getting it done. Both approaches do that when they are done well. Unfortunately, this is rare.
The SIF issue wasn’t out in the open at that time. Research we conducted later (with ORC and data from six large organizations) brought the SIF issue to the forefront and changed the game altogether. In the fourth and final part of this series I’ll lay out our SIF findings and tie them to a way to fix BBS while addressing SIF events.
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 Krause, T.R., Hidley, J.H., & Hodson, S.J. (1990) The Behavior-Based Safety Process. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
 Krause, T.R. (2005) Leading with Safety. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.