Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Want to Make things Safer? Take More Risks.


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By Phil LaDuke

I don’t write for a living; in fact, all the writing I do I do for free. That has more to do with me retaining my rights to the intellectual property than it is to with any sort of altruistic intent. I mention this, because after over 50 published articles and around 250 blog posts I have created the impression that I am primarily a writer; someone who watches the industry and spouts largely academic opinions about work that I don’t really do, that I somehow l lack standing.

As surprising as it is to some, I actually DO work in the field. My particular niche lies in organizational change relative to worker safety and helping companies build a robust safety infrastructure (what point is there in implementing a safety change intervention if there is no means to sustain it long-term?) I begin the process of a safety change intervention (or infrastructure build) by talking to business leaders about their visions—what do they want to accomplish with their worker safety management system. Recently I have noticed a trend: business leaders tend to say they want to be the best, to be world class; and then they are almost obsessive about what “everyone else is doing”.

You Can’t Make an Omelet without Breaking Some Eggs

Becoming the best involves innovating, and innovation involves risk; a great deal of risk. But unless you take the plunge and move outside your comfort zone you will always be following the leader, and nobody ever won a race—or became the best at anything—by watching the leader and doing your best to match his or her every move. The people and companies that become the best do so not by following the leader but by experimenting with things that have never been done. Years ago I was working with a large international company who was at the forefront of culture change relative to safety. My working contact was something of a perfectionist who continually fiddled with the process in an attempt to get things exactly right. The executives above him grew impatient and wanted to implement what my contact considered a half-baked (and by that I mean mostly done, but not quite “there” yet) solution. When my contact protested that the solution wasn’t ready to be implemented, the executive responded by saying that we are operating in uncharted waters and even if we were to wait until the solution was perfect in our minds we couldn’t really know with any certainty if it would work. He said we needed to go with what we had and if it didn’t work we would try something different. My contact saw implementing too early as undermining the solution, essentially an opportunity to fail, but the executive saw failure as an opportunity to learn, and reasoned that the sooner we learned these lessons the better. I learned a lot from that executive.

Benchmarking Isn’t Copying

Years ago I taught classes in benchmarking, and I can assure you that benchmarking is one of the most misunderstood business concepts out there. True benchmarking involves taking a concept from outside your industry and applying it in a new and innovative way to what you do. People often mistake competitive analysis (the practice of evaluating the things you in comparison to the practices of others in your industry). The difference may not seem to be a big deal, but it really is. Benchmarking involves putting a new and different twist on a practice outside your industry or discipline but competitive analysis is another gradation of follow the leader. Benchmarking gets the creative juices flowing and spurs new ideas and breakthroughs.

The Journey is Sometimes More Important than the Destination

The trial and error of innovation can hone an organization’s problem solving skills, investigative abilities, and transform the culture from one asks “what is it?” to one that asks “what could be?” Learning from failure is becomes a habit in organizations that embrace risk taking and innovation and in safety we must learn from our failures to ensure that we don’t repeat tragedy after tragedy.

The Blind Leading the Fearful

So what does this mean for safety? I understand how ridiculous it is to expect safety professionals, who—not to stereotype, but let’s face it—tend to be a risk averse group to take more risks. But as Dr. Robert Long says, “risk makes sense”, and when it comes to safety we really need to stop reswizzling the same old tired snake oil and take real risks. We need to see what we can learn from management systems, lean principles, quality operating systems, and a host of other functions. We need to benchmark, and experiment, and generally turn safety on its ear. We will fail, and in failure we will learn a better way to keep our workers safe in our specific environments. Safety has plateaued in many respects and if we don’t shake things up we run the risk of losing ground.

 

Filed under: Risk, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Six Simple Ways to Change Your Life


by Phil La Duke

Years ago I worked in talent development for one of the largest faith-based healthcare systems in the United States. I left it to pursue other career goals but it never left me, at least not completely. The system was founded when two religious orders merged after discovering that the youngest among the two orders was 78 years old. They came together to preserve a way of life that had existed over 500 years. Sure it ran hospitals, but more important was the spiritual community that it had created. Faced with extinction it set about an elaborate plan for turning over its legacy to the laity. I always took that very seriously. For me it wasn’t about organizational development or training, although these were certainly a big part of my job, rather it was about preserving a way of life.
Some time ago I shared the podium at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers with an anthropologist and National Geographic photographer who talked about cultural extinction (which interestingly enough, he attributed to the growth of the written word). According to him, cultures are going extinct at a far faster rate than animals; it’s scary really, thousands of years of knowledge lost as cultures die daily. I was determined that I would do everything in my power to save this one culture to which I had been entrusted.
I wasn’t the only one so entrusted; there were scores of professionals whose primary jobs were to preserve the mission, culture, and vision of the consolidated order. One of the tools they had for preserving the culture was the Guiding Behaviors (note to the grammar vigilantes: I know this sounds like number disagreement but the Guiding Behaviors is considered one tool). As I reflected this morning, as I do every morning, on these behaviors it occurred to me that these would serve the safety professionals as much as anyone else. I have changed the wording of some of these to make them less specific to healthcare, but I doubt the surviving members of the orders will mind too much.

“We support each other in service”
The first of the behaviors is “we support each other in service” what better way for a safety professional to sum up his or her job? We don’t really save lives—not the way doctors or nurses do anyway—but we can always support people in making better decisions and while not directly saving lives influencing people to save their own lives or the lives of a coworker.

“We communicate openly and honestly, respectfully, and directly”
I’ve written volumes about the importance of open and honest communication. I still believe that the only path for safety professionals to get respect is by truly respecting the people and organizations they serve. It’s disappointing how many safety professionals disparage the people they are charged with protecting. People who feel respected tend to respond respectfully. We must always strive, not only to be truthful, but truly honest and not just with the people we serve but with ourselves as well. And let us never confuse hurtful speech with honesty. Before speaking we should ask ourselves, “is what I want to say true? Is it helpful? Is it intended to help someone or merely to make ourselves feel better? And finally, is it necessary?” if all of these things aren’t true then maybe we should just keep it to ourselves.

“We are fully present”
Perhaps the behavior I struggle with the most is “we are fully present”. Being fully present means that you keep your mind on the job—no multitasking, no distractions, no dreaming about the weekend. While it’s easy to see how staying fully present on the job would greatly benefit most workers—distraction on the job can be deadly—we also need to be fully present as safety professionals. This means really participating in meetings and really listening (not just waiting to talk) and working with others to accomplish things. Keeping your head in the game every minute of every day is really tough and if you try to do it you will come home exhausted.
“We are all accountable”
“We are all accountable” means more than holding others accountable, although that is certainly a part of it. We also must strive to hold ourselves accountable. Each day we must ask ourselves if we earned our pay. Did we make a positive impact in people’s lives, not just in the context of safety, but did we make the workplace (and the world) a more pleasant place? Did we really bring our “A” game or did we merely phone it in? We must also remember that we have a duty to be just in holding others accountable. We do not stand in judgment above those we serve, but we owe it to the organization and to the entire population to hold people answerable—both positively and negatively,
“We trust and assume goodness in intentions”
People screw with our work, our day, and our heads on a daily basis. But trusting and assuming goodness in intentions has taught me one of the most powerful lessons of my life: we screw with our own work, our own day, and our own heads far more often than anyone else ever could. They say that forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves and it begins by never taking slight in the first place. Instead of assuming that the Operations leadership is throwing us under the bus we should ask the person some questions. Most often we will find that because we assume that the person meant us no harm and was probably completely unaware of the issues he or she was creating for us. Assuming goodness in intentions brings a person real peace and strengthens relationships. There is a saying that if you keep meeting jerks all day long the jerk is you. I say that if you assume goodness of intention in all you meet you will live in a world like you could never imagine. Send out good stimuli and you receive good responses.
“We are continuous learners”
Too often we strive to teach. We are, after all, the experts in safety and what good is that expertise unless we share it with the organization? We get sad and frustrated when people don’t want to listen to what we have to say. But when we are continuous learners, when we focus not on what we can teach others, but what we can learn from them, we find that we end up teaching other so much more of value than if we were to just spout facts at them. Continuous learning involves a lot of introspection—we have to examine our mistakes and try hard to understand why things went wrong and what we can do to fix things them.
The World Loves a Hypocrite
While I try to live by these simple six statements I don’t always succeed; in fact I fail a lot. But the beauty of these guiding behaviors is that they are things to which I aspire. So now I charge you to share these aspirations with me. Try doing these six things for a week. You may fail, but remember in some cases success comes, not in the outcome, but in the attempt.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Hazard Management, Just Culture, Performance Improvement, Phil La Duke, Worker Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Your Success May Hinge On Your Alignment With The Organization’s Maturity


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By Phil La Duke

In recent weeks I have used this forum to explore the rift between business executives and safety professionals.  This disconnection between the two parties is a serious issue facing many of today’s safety professionals and one that promises to get far worse before it gets any better. In the course of my considerable work in safety transformations and safety organization change consulting[1] I’ve spent considerable time working with members of both sides of the argument and I can see real validity to the opinions of both the executives and the safety professionals.

The Argument Is Seldom About The Problem; It’s About the Solution.

When you consider the collective complaints of safety professionals about executives or vice versa, the parties seldom disagree that there is a problem—if workers are getting injured neither party is happy—rather the parties quibble about the details: how big is the problem? what is the best course of action? how urgent is the problem? It would seem that these details would be fertile ground for compromise, unfortunately the roots of the argument over approach and details are deeply philosophical and neither side is likely to give up ground without a vicious fight. The answer to each of these issues is imprinted by both sides’ philosophical approach.  What’s the best course of action? Leadership may believe that the bare minimum compliance is the best, and most fiscally responsible course of action, whereas the safety professional may advocate in favor of a more involved and costly approach that will address not only the symptoms but will serve to build a foundational model that will be applicable to other functions as well.

It’s Not A Question of Right Versus Wrong

A colleague of mine at ERM has done truly terrific work in organizational maturity mapping.   Organizations mature along a predictable pattern in all their management systems; they tend to begin in chaos move toward event-driven and compliance focused, on to behavior-driven and a process focused, and ultimately mature into organizations that are enterprise-driven, and performance focused. Unfortunately, not all functions mature at the same pace.  Sometimes the safety function progress far slower than the rest of the organization, and this misalignment typically leads to the swift replacement of the safety leadership in favor of personnel more closely aligned with the overall organization’s maturity level.  In other words, if the executives are behavior-driven and process focused, but the safety function tends to remain event-driven and compliance-focused the executives will tend replace key safety personnel with people who have ideas closer to their own.

What’s far more common is a safety function that is enterprise-driven and performance-focused in an organization that is lagging behind in maturity.  Imagine an organization where the leadership remains focused on compliance and driven by events but where the safety function is pushing for an enterprise-wide approach that is performance-focused.  The leadership, convinced that the organization is safe enough and that any further investment to take the organization beyond mere compliance is unwarranted in the best case and wastrel in the worst.  The safety professionals begin to see the leadership as shortsighted or even uncaring.  The executives, for their part, start to see the safety professionals as softheaded spendthrifts. Both sides begin to harbor resentment until one party (usually the safety professional) bubbles up in frustration and does something stupid and unprofessional like cussing out a colleague or becoming openly disrespectful to the other party.  This type of event may or may not lead to the dismissal of the offending party.  More likely than not, the event will seemingly be ignored (but not forgiven or forgotten) until some other event (like a reduction in staff) makes it easy to dispose of one side or the other without confrontation of unpleasantness.

Expediting Organizational Maturity

While it’s impossible to skip a step in the organizational maturity continuum, it is possible (and important) to understand where your organization currently stands and, with guidance, one can expedite the move towards a more mature organization; I won’t get into that (why provide any more free consulting than need be?), except to say that trying to push organizational maturity without sufficient expertise can be dangerous to the safety professional’s career. People will eventually accept change, but they seldom forgive it.

When Culture Conflicts With the Individual, Culture Wins

If you’re a safety professional misaligned with the corporate culture you have some decisions to make. If you can be happy working in an organization that is behind you on the maturity continuum it’s no great effort to do the job and do it well.  The key is to understand that the current state is neither permanent nor dependent on the current leadership.  The organization will evolve and change when it is ready to, and (lacking outside intervention) there is nothing to do but patiently wait.  But if you are a safety professional who cannot stand waiting for the organization to catch up to you, you would be better served by seeking an organization more closely aligned to your particular philosophic approach. Staying on and throwing tantrums or becoming completely disengaged doesn’t do you or your organization any good.

Misalingment between the maturity of the safety function and the overall organization is one of the most common sources of frustration and animosity  in workplaces today. The adage, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand” has never been more true than when safety and leadership have different visions.


[1] I understand the fact that I actually work in the safety profession comes as a shock to many of the mouth-breathers who assume, without fact one, that I am merely a safety blogger and journalist.  Never under estimate the stupidity of some people.

Filed under: culture change, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What Can The Executive Suite Expect From Safety Professionals


By Phil La Duke

About a year ago, one of my Facebook friends, a nurse, posted a frothy meme about nurses.  “we’re not maids, we’re not you’re kids baby-sitters…” and it went on from there;  a post filled with vitriol and resentment for the patients and their families for which they serve.  I commented that if she felt such bitterness at her constituency perhaps she should choose a different profession instead of whining about it on social media.  I observed that the nobility of any deed is lost when one complains that one does not get one’s proper recognition, appreciation, and accolades.  She responded by “defriending” me; good riddance. I’ve seen similar posts from policemen, fireman, and teachers and the common thread—besides being whining malcontents—is the intense lack of judgment shown by people who publicly deride their constituency. I have never trusted people who define themselves in terms of what they aren’t; me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

While I haven’t seen anything posted on Facebook where a safety professional bellyaches about the lack of appreciation shown to him or her, LinkedIn threads are rife  with complaints from long suffering safety professionals about those that lead their organizations.  From the vague lack of support to accusations of ethics just south of Heinrich Himmler, safety professionals have a lot to say about the executives of their companies and most of it is bad.  One common complaint is that even the best-intentioned executive is a slobbering oaf when it comes to safety.  Safety professionals say they want more educated leaders but scarce little is done in terms of what the executives should be able to expect from their safety professionals.  So what should the executives be able to expect? What are the baseline things that business leaders should be able to count on from any competent safety professional?

Competency

At a most foundational level an executive should be able to count on the safety professional to have mastery level knowledge of safety regulations and compliance.  The safety professional should be expected to know and understand what must be reported, how basic regulatory metrics are calculated, how safety data should be interpreted, and where to find more in-depth explanations of the most common safety questions relative to the appropriate industry.  There are limits to what the safety professional should know, of course, after all they aren’t lawyers, but the safety professional should be keenly aware of his or her limits and be open with the executive as to where the safety professional’s skill set ends.

Honesty & Integrity

Safety professionals should always be honest with the executives—if it is a good idea to do something then that’s different from it being a legal requirement.  Safety professionals who use a liberal interpretation of regulatory requirements to push through a pet project are not to be trusted.  It’s this sort of moral flexibility that gets some safety professionals in trouble.  Executives need safety professionals to keep them on the right side of the law, not just compliant.  In some cases, the performance of the safety professional can be the difference between an executive being charged with a homicide.  The honesty and integrity of the safety professional must be above reproach.  Conversely, if a safety professional falsifies data, deliberately underreports, or otherwise subverts the law, then the executive may fined him or herself in legal hot water because of what the executive knew or should have known. Executives have the right to expect the safety professional will assertively point out when the executive is dangerously close to a legal or ethical breach.

Neutrality

Safety professionals should be dispassionately reporting the facts.  Executives should expect safety data to be free of commentary, sermons, melodrama, or pontifications.  The safety professional should be reporting facts, assessing risks, and professionally interpreting trends.  The safety professional should then be presenting recommendations that are free from personal agendas and editorializing. An executive needs a recommendation that clearly articulates the expected benefits, risks and rewards, and likelihood of success, not a lot of campaigning for a pet project.

An Informed Opinion

Executives count on experts to guide their decision-making and for that to happen they need the safety professional to distill, often complex data and safety trends into meaningful and useful chunks of information.  Too often the executive is given jargon-filled gobbledygook that he or she finds of little use. Most of all, the executive has the right to expect that the safety professional will always understand that no matter how informed the opinion it remains just that: an opinion. Asking one’s opinion is not allowing one the power to make a decision for you.

Professionalism

Professionalism must extend beyond the normal niceties of office etiquette and assertiveness and move into the realm of true professionalism; the safety professional has a specialized skill set that must be brought to bear in situations with a lot of unknowns and ambiguity.  Executives need skilled experts in worker safety not zealots and martyrs who believe that their job is more of a spiritual calling than a job.  Executives neither want nor can afford a softheaded boob at the helm of the safety function.

Business Savvy

Calvin Coolidge once said, ““the chief business of…people is business” but he’s often misquoted, as “the business of business is business”. However you interpret the quote one must agree that the primary goal of any business (heck any organization) is its own propagation.  The executive’s first directive is always to ensure that the business continues to exist.  Safety people often lose sight of this.  Hiding behind the self-righteous indignation and pronouncement that safety is more important than anything in all cases alienates executives.  And while nobody wants to risk people’s lives in favor of the immortal buck, executives have the right to expect that safety professionals will understand that within ethical and moral boundaries safety isn’t always the most important consideration and even in cases where safety may be the most important consideration it may not be the most urgent.

Respect

Often the executive will make decisions that aren’t especially popular with the safety professional.  It is not incumbent on the executive to explain his or her rational for making a tough call, in fact, the executive may not be able to legally or ethically disclose the “hows” and “whys” of a decision.  Executives have the right to make these decisions without the safety professional bad mouthing him or her behind his or her back.  Safety professionals who get sarcastic, rude, or pouty because the executive made a decision that was not to their liking lack the respect that the executive is owed and should not be surprised by the consequences.

A Clear Definition of “Support”

The biggest complaint I hear from safety professionals is that the executives don’t support them (or that the executive don’t “back them up”) but when I ask for details I seldom get them.  When I talk to senior leaders they tell me “I give the safety professionals whatever support they tell me they need”; clearly there’s a disconnect between the two worlds.  Executives tend to be reluctant to buy the proverbial “pig in a poke” and may actually believe they are supporting the safety function even though the safety professionals feel very differently. Clearly leadership is essential to a robust safety effort, but unless all parties can pinpoint exactly what “support” means one side or the other (or both) are likely to be disappointed.

Filed under: Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Maybe You Weren’t Fired For Sticking To Your Principles


By Phil La Duke

“I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet; so I took his shoes.”

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In case you were wondering, this is what I imagine a hung-over mandrill looking like

The other day I met a man who lost his job. His tale of woe may ring true for some of you; he squared off with a company leader over a safety issue. Things got heated and when things cooled down he found himself sacked…again. You might suspect that I would devote this week’s post to all the injustice associated with people, particularly safety professionals, who lose their jobs because they are forced to choose between their principles and their livelihoods, but alas, sadly you would, yet again be wrong. The person in question is a known hot head who, apart from being euphemistically described as “rough around the edges” has a penchant for going on rabid attacks. He is disliked by many and respected by few. I’d like to assume the best about people, but when you’ve lost your job several times because you’ve lost your cool…well at some point I’ve got my doubts.

If You Can’t Tell Who The Mark Is, It’s You

There’s a saying going around that says, in effect, and I will clean this up for those of you of delicate sensibility, that if you keep meeting “jerks” all day, than you’re the “jerk”. Speaking as a “jerk” of note I can attest to the truth of this saying. As it happens, I’ve also heard a lot of safety professionals bitterly complain about being fired, admonished, disciplined or otherwise pimp-slapped by their employers simply because they were trying to do their jobs. These, the wretched refuse of the safety profession, commiserate with each other, their shoulders sagging, spirits broken, kept upright only through the inflation of self-righteous indignation, decrying the injustice of it all. But is it really unjust? Or is it as likely that these buffoons were served their just desserts and found the taste unpalatable? Of course it’s true that there are safety professionals who have been unceremoniously relieved of their positions for no greater offense than advocating for safety. I only say this because I can here the murmuring of the pain-in-the ass contrarians that will inevitably throw up statistical outliers as proof that I don’t have standing to speak out on a subject. So while I make no claim of the universality of situation I will say this: a lot of safety professionals who believe they have been fired, censured, or otherwise have suffered unpleasant consequences have actually been fired because they have the interpersonal skills of a hung-over mandrill.

I’m Only Doing My Job

A lot of malcontented safety professionals will loudly protest that they got into hot water when they were only doing their job when in fact they were doing their job poorly. Maybe they did; history will judge them. The point being that, from the guards at Auschwitz to the surly safety manager, many people try to excuse some pretty reprehensible workplace behavior as merely doing your job. The more noble the calling the more likely one is to excuse dysfunction as a necessary, if not admirable part of the job. Safety professionals often believe that the fact that they are “trying to keep people safe” excuse some pretty awful “bedside manners”. It becomes more a matter of HOW the job is done than whether or not the job is done at all. It’s like the policeman who writes you a citation and throws the book at you while adding a little sermonette as he hands you the ticket. Even though you know you are in the wrong and that the officer is under no obligation to give you a break, you may still prefer that he keep the commentary to himself. And many policeman will be jerks to you when you get a ticket and—despite being jerks about it—puff out their chest and steadfastly refuse to apologize for “doing their jobs”. Now, suppose you are in a position to influence that officer’s career advancement? Are you going to be able to overlook the fact that he does his job while acting like a jerk? If so, you are a better man than I. If not you can probably understand where I’m coming from.

Life Without Consequences

It seems to me that there are many people—not just safety professionals, but workers of all stripes—who believe that they can treat others in the workplace (coworkers and even customers) however they see fit in the name of being plain-spoken, tough, or “keeping it real”; these people believe they can live a life without consequences. This idea is typically reinforced throughout their careers because their technical expertise makes them seem invaluable to the company. Some are legitimately bent—either functionally mentally ill or simply social maladroit—while others simply behave like bullies, fussing and fuming their way through life. Add to that the mistaken believe that some safety professionals have that they are the policemen of the workplace.

It’s Not Always The Jerk’s Fault

Loud-mouthed jerks typically remain loud-mouthed jerks because they are rewarded for it. They snarl at waitresses and get refills of hot coffee, they yell at coworkers and things get pushed through; special exceptions are made just for them. They come to see themselves as perfectionists, tough-but-fair, and no-nonsense. Meanwhile the bar tender is slipping a few drops of Visine in their meticulously specked Old Fashion. I’ve long thought that society in general would be more polite and generally more civil if more people had been beaten within an inch of their lives after some of the stunts they’ve pulled, but alas folks have just got too civilized I guess. What’s more, most of the biggest workplace jerks I’ve ever known—the type of people who throw tantrums the envy of a silver-spoon 4-year old, put like felt up prom dates, and generally act in ways that make you shake your head—have had numerous warnings and “one last chances”. If the behavior works why not stick with it?

The Things We Don’t Remember And the Things We Can’t Forget

I can already hear the murmurings from people who will accuse me of suggesting that safety professionals need to sell out if they want to keep their jobs. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, even a cursory read of my body of work will demonstrate my deep belief that safety professionals who remain passive in the face of gross violations, ethics abuses, or other attempts by employers to subvert their legal or moral obligations are cowards and thieves ; shirking one’s responsibilities to avoid conflict and even to save one’s job is tantamount to malpractice.

That having been said, today’s safety professional has to be persuasive and understand that his or her opinion, professionally informed not withstanding, just that: opinion. If people can’t hear past the dysfunction we cannot be effective in our roles . Maya Angelou said, “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel.” I think this quote is the essence of what I’m trying to say. People will forgive us for being incompetent screw-ups who don’t know beans when the bag is open, but if we’re jerks, they will lie in wait for us to screw up. You don’t have to be popular to be an effective safety professional but it sure helps.

Filed under: Just Culture, Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Creating a Culture of Safety Excellence


by Phil La Duke

There’s been a lot of yapping in the safety community about creating a safety culture and some of it has merit and some of it is just yapping.  In fact, there are a lot of people working in the safety profession who know as much about changing a corporate culture as they do about building an aircraft carrier.

A note about the photos in this week’s blog, I took these photos at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they are images from the mural painted in the courtyard by Diego Rivera.  A masterpiece you can only see in Detroit.

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Contrary to what many will tell you, a culture is more than just “how we do things around here” it’s the codified set of behaviors that keep us from killing each other.  People who study corporate culture and change talk about culture in terms of:

  • Norms. Norms are the accepted practices and methods of a population.  Norms determine what the population judges as “normal” and what is “abnormal”.  Norms form the foundation for etiquette and identifies what is polite or impolite.  To a large extent, norms determine an individual’s success.  When new people join a population there are strong incentives to learn and adopt the norms.  One does not feel comfortable until one is completely operating within organizational norms.
  • Habits. The secret to change lies in understanding how our habits to a very large extent determine how we live our lives and whether we become morbidly obese, change-smoking, degenerate gamblers. In his 2012 book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” Charles Duhigg explores how, despite free will, most of us live our lives doing things that are self-destructive, unpleasant, and that inhibit our success merely out of habit. Duhigg believes that organizations, like individuals, operate largely out of habit, and while it may seem that people at the top of organizations are geniuses or imbeciles, much of a organization’s performance is rooted in habit.
    Habits can be helpful or harmful. Some habits, like getting up early to exercise, carry with them significant benefits, while others, like eating when you’re not hungry, can cause serious, long-term health problems; its no different with organizations and those of you who are looking to change the “safety culture” of your organization should pay very close attention to those habits that are having the greatest influence over the relative safety of the organization.
  • Shared Values & Taboos. Every culture is marked by a collective sense of what is important (values) and the things that are, without exception, unacceptable (taboos).  Shared values not only shape the key decisions made by leaders in an organization, but also make the actions of leaders more predictable which in turn reduces stress and uncertainty in the population.  Taboos make it easy for the entire population to know where the line is and to expect certain and uncompromising reprisals for those who violate a taboo. Shared values and taboos are often informal and unwritten and may well conflict (typically in dysfunctional organizations) with the expressed values or official policies.

Culture versus Climate

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A culture is a deeply embedded and codified set of expectations; its largely unconscious—people may aspire to change or direct a culture, but they are seldom successful except when those trying to change.  Cultures are how companies survive and thrive and, as such, it is deeply imbedded in the collective psyche of the population.  Climate, on the other hand, refers to the largely transitive state of the environment.  Climate change is most often driven by an intense outside force that is generally short in duration. The resulting change is typically rapid but it is rarely lasting and things quickly revert back to the old state once the outside force is removed or even lessened.

The term “safety culture” has become muddled by years of misuse and hype by safety vendors who purportedly bring culture change but bring climate change instead.  James Reason, the father of Just Culture, believed that before a company could move to a culture of safety it had to first create a culture of justice.  Throughout the years, a mixture of a confusion over Reason’s teachings and out and out misleading branding created the idea that somehow some companies had a “safety culture” while others did not.

All companies have a safety subculture, in that all companies have norms, habits, values, and taboos related to safety.  So essentially, “safety culture” is a subset of the overall corporate culture and is characterized by:

  • Safety Norms. The things that are accepted practice within safety.  Safety norms can be as simple as the example set by a veteran worker and emulated by new workers or as complex as the ways that workers interact with leadership and the safety function.  Norms are typically the unspoken and even subliminal acceptable ways we do things.  Organizations tend to reward those who follow the norms in safety and punish those who don’t, often without even being conscious of doing so.
  • Work Habits.  All organizations have a slightly different risk tolerance and one company’s killer job is another’s routine work. Risk tolerance is highly influenced by national culture as well as by safety norms and other subcultures.
  • Shared Values & Taboos about Safety. Every organization has an imaginary line when it comes to safety.  Once that line is crossed the individual who crosses it is judged to be reckless and to have taken an unreasonable risk.
  • Something Every Organization Already Has. As I mentioned, every organization has a safety culture, but every organization’s  is unique. Understanding how your culture views the safety of the workforce takes research and an open mind.  It is often extremely useful to have an outside set of eyes (not necessarily a vendor, it could be a customer, or someone from another location) to view your culture and identify the value it places on worker safety.

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The leader plays a pivotal role in worker safety and in shaping the culture.  Ideally, the leader’s behaviors are in alignment with the desired, norms, taboos, and habits of the organization, but when they are not, these leaders tend to be pressured out of the organization (although too often they create a great deal of dysfunction before they go).  There are two ways in which leaders influence the corporate culture: how they behave and how they manage.

The Shadow of the Leader

Strong leaders create such a powerful influence that their personalities can be seen in the attitudes and behaviors or those who work for them.  Bellicose tyrannical leaders tend to produce departments where individuals scream and bully other departments to get their own way, where leaders who exhibit a strong ethical sense and who reinforce the values tend to produce people who act likewise; it’s not magic, people have a very strong drive to conform.  So in a very real sense, leaders shape how the organization behaves and make decisions.

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Dysfunctional Management Breeds Dysfunctional Operations

It should surprise no one that organizations with poor systems tend to produce a great deal of chaos and a periodic review of policies and procedures is necessary to get better results.

Ultimately, the leader determines whether the workplace will be dysfunctional or productive, and whether or not people will make good decisions or take reckless chances.

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Mao said, “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think there’s something to that.  Before people will even consider changing they will explore every option that allows them to keep doing what they’re doing. People will resist change even if they believe it will likely benefit them, why? Because of fear of the unknown. Why do we tell our children not to take candy from strangers when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy? Simple, subconsciously we play out a really simple and pragmatic decision making process: we must assume the unknown will harm us to survive. To foment change we must convince the population that it cannot survive and thrive if we continue to operate in the way we have been. We must make taking the candy from strangers the most attractive, or at least the least loathsome option, and that takes some doing.

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One of the best ways to foment change is the financial argument.  Injuring workers costs a LOT of money, and the bulk of the population is either convinced that all management cares about is money or is open to the possibility that operations that aren’t financially successful will be closed, sold, or face pressure to make brutal cuts in benefits and even pay.  Also, tapping into whatever your organization finds most important—whether that be productivity, tonnage shipped, or whatever—and expressing the costs in those terms (we would have to ship an additional hundred tons of cargo to recoup that cost.  It makes an impression.

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To some extent, there is, or should be, intrinsic dissatisfaction of the status quo if anyone is getting hurt on the job.  But in cases where there is a fair amount of organizational inertia, fomenting dissatisfaction can be tricky.  Even organizations that ostensibly are dissatisfied with some element of its performances may be fiercely resistant to change.  Dissatisfaction with the end result doesn’t always mean dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many organizations perish because, despite a deep and abiding dissatisfaction with its performance it is not particularly dissatisfied with its current tactics.

Why Does The Organization Have To Change

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Dissatisfiers must be compelling and easy for the average person to understand.  True dissatisfaction comes from the answer to the question, “why do we have to change?”  When it comes to worker safety the answers tend to be pretty simple:

  • Changes in Our Business Environment. Applying static solutions to dynamic problems lead to disaster and clinging to those static solutions until it is too late has driven many companies out of business.  The speed at which our business environment changes dictates the speed at which our culture must change to address the outside forces. In safety, the cost of worker injuries (both direct and indirect) are driving changes in our safety strategies and tactics.
  • Changes In Society’s View of Workplace Deaths and Injuries. Both my grandfathers died from workplace injuries. My father and brother-in-law both died of work-related illnesses. I lost a great uncle to a workplace injury, and I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost to workplace injuries.  In many of these cases, people looked at what happened and said, “that’s a shame”. Today, these deaths may well have been prosecuted as homicides! The point is that while there was a time when workplace deaths were seen as unfortunate incidents, society now views them as completely unacceptable.Rising Insurance and Medical Costs.  Rising insurance and medical costs are big news.  For years these costs have sky-rocketed and now are at the point where companies with poor safety performance are finding it difficult to compete.
  • Growth. The business strategies for running a small company aren’t the same as those for running a midsized company which aren’t the same as for running a large company.  Organizations that understand the need to upgrade accounting, IT, and sales systems to accommodate growth often miss the very real need to upgrade safety management systems as well.

Making the Case For Change

IMG_0209_1 When creating dissatisfaction, you have to make the business case for change.  Often, leaders will adopt a “if it aint broke don’t fix it” approach to organizational change; this approach is often dangerous and irresponsible.  When making the case for change you should be able to articulate the answers to these questions:

  • What is it about the current state that is unacceptable?
  • Where would you like to take your organization?
  • What is the difference between where you are and where you would like to be?

The Cost Of Safety

The cost of safety (both direct and indirect) must be calculated and shared in a way that is meaningful to the organization.  Expressing the cost of safety in ways that reflect the corporate culture are key to making safety a priority.  For example, if your corporate culture places a high value on sales, then expressing the costs of safety in terms of the added sales required to replace the money spent on worker injuries is a great way for the organization’s leadership to connect the dots between sales and worker injuries.

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Also, it is important that you use actual cost figures and avoid averages, formulas, or other ways to calculate the “true cost of injuries.” These injury calculators use averages derived from figures across all injuries.  Unfortunately, the spectrum of injury costs vary widely and where your particular industry falls on this continuum (or where your company falls on the continuum within your industry) will rarely represent your actual costs.  It’s a lot of work to research and calculate these injury costs but the alternative is for an executive to (rightly) dismiss your figures as conjecture.  In many cases, your figures will be significantly higher than those calculated by formulas any way.  And if you’re figures aren’t particularly compelling (some companies don’t spend much on worker injuries, and may in fact not hurt many workers at all, until they have a catastrophic system breakdown that causes a fatality) you shouldn’t be focusing on cost and shift your attention to something more appropriate to your situation.

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Dissatisfaction with a compelling vision for success leads to frustration and dysfunction.

Why Create A Compelling Vision For Success?

Beyond the need for a vision for a better workplace you have to create a vision that makes sense to your organization and to do that you have to create a vision that details precisely what the desired behaviors look like.  In many cases, the desired behaviors are simply a reiteration of your expressed values; getting people to “walk the talk”. Creating a vision for appropriate behaviors should also address norms and confront norms that don’t match the corporate values (“we say we want “’X’ but we do ‘Y’  instead).  The vision should always be crafted such that it remains in the context of the dissatisfaction (“we are doing this because we don’t want “Y” any more”).  You can’t achieve change without changing your organization’s habits and norms.

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Creating a Compelling Vision of Success

A compelling vision of success answers the question,  “What do we want our culture to look like?”  While this may sound like an easy question, it can be difficult to answer.  In fact, you need to ask yourself what you need to do not only to create of vision of success, but also to make it reasonable, practical, and achievable? I  can’t answer that question for you; in fact, no one outside your organization can.  While outsiders can facilitate sessions that lead you to answers to these questions, no outsider will ever know your organization better than you do; beware and avoid those who think they know your world better than you do.

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Culture And Habit

Many of are norms are really just organizational habits.  In his 2012 book, The Power Of Habit  Charles Duhigg explores how institutional habits effect populations.  According to Duhigg, habits essentially burn a path in our brains which allows for automatic behavior.  This path allows our brain to have a sort of a subroutine that helps to automate behavior.  Duhigg believes that once a habit is truly formed it can never be erased.  The key, Duhigg says, is to overwrite a new, acceptable behavior over the existing undesired one.  Duhigg also believes that there is little difference between personal habits and institutional, or cultural habits.  Habits, according to Duhigg, form a loop.  They begin with a cue, for example boredom, followed by a routine, buying a snack from the vending machine and visiting with coworkers, which leads to a reward, in this case social interaction.  If an individual wants to lose weight and stop ingesting unhealthy calories will have greatest success by keeping the cue and reward the same, but substituting the routine for something healthy, for example walking around the block, while keeping the same reward (that is, social interaction after the routine).

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Of course to make these kinds of changes (in your personal life or in your organization) you need to become very aware of the cues and rewards associated with the habit, and this in itself can be very challenging. In my experience an organization’s bad habits around safety tend to manifest most frequently in what I call the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

Focusing On Getting It Right

In safety, it’s easy to focus on the negatives.  Organizations tend to address worker safety in a series of “thou shalt not…” statements.  It’s easy, for example, to create policies that forbid working on energized equipment without first locking out. But these kinds of fiats aren’t all that effective.  People tend to pick and choose which rules they follow and which ones they ignore.  (in fact, I wrote an article on this subject Why We Violate The Rules  http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2011/05/why-we-violate-the-rules/ ).

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A better way of effecting lasting change is to work to instill values.  Many companies have their golden rules, or safety commandments, but in a few rare cases there are companies that have created an atmosphere where people behave in a way that truly supports worker safety and a brother’s keeper mentality.  So what’s the difference between the companies who have slogans hanging on the walls and those whose values are manifest in the workplace?   The successful companies make decisions from the top of the organization to the grass roots based on deeply embedded values that model the “right thing to do”.

To mimic these companies’ successes, you should:

  • Plan for Success. This may sound trite, but success is impossible without active planning and a whole lot of work.  No pun intended, but success in worker safety doesn’t happen accidentally, rather, it is the product of hard work on the part of dedicated and talented people.
  • Create a Compelling Vision of Success. I mentioned creating a compelling vision of success before, but it is important enough to repeat it.  A compelling vision of success isn’t a safety slogan or a lofty bit of prose hanging in the corporate headquarters lobby.  A compelling vision of success is a simple statement that clearly illustrates how the organization is going to approach keeping workers out of harm’s way; it’s the things people must do to keep themselves and their coworkers alive and unharmed.
  • Defining desired habits.  It’s not enough to write a list of things people need to do to stay alive, you must also tackle the habits that typically prevent people from doing these things. Using our lockout example, one might include a statement like “we always ensure that energy has been isolated and controlled before attempting maintenance” but unless you also seriously consider the reasons people might  NOT always do this your vision of success doesn’t ring true.  It becomes a platitude instead of a guiding value or governing behavior.  When defining the desired habits you need to take a hard look at “what about when…” statements or “except for…” conditions.  If you don’t address the cues and rewards that lead to dangerous behaviors your vision will fall on deaf ears.

Crafting Next Steps

Schein’s final element of change is next steps.  A dissatisfied population with a compelling vision for success is powerless and rudderless without clear and practical next steps.

I mentioned a moment ago that I would explain what I see as the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.

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Early in my career I was fortunate enough to participate in benchmarking the world’s safest companies and in so doing I discovered seven elements essential to achieving safety excellence:

Training

Training isn’t limited to safety training, in fact, the most important training for keeping workers safe is in their core competencies; workers who don’t have mastery of their basic jobs can’t do their jobs safely.

Process Capability

If your process isn’t robust and stable you subject your workers to risk of injuries

Hazard and Risk Management

Removing hazards before people get hurt is the key to a sound safety management system.

Incident Investigation

When we understand and correct the causes of injuries we can prevent them from recurring in other areas.

Strategy Deployment

Too few organizations have any real strategy for safety. Safety strategy involves taking a big-picture look at the safety of the workplace. Safety strategy development should establish periodic reviews of policy to ensure that anachronistic rules, policies, and procedures do not jeopardize worker safety.

Accountability

Accountability is different than blame.  Safety excellence depends on good systems of accountability that hold employees answerable for the risks they take.

Engagement

Workers at all levels must be empowered to make sound decisions and to take action to make the workplace safer, but beyond mere empowerment workers must be engaged. Empowered workers are entrusted with the right to make decisions but engaged workers intuitively know the right decisions to make.

These seven elements are typically where a company picks up bad habits.  It’s not that companies don’t do these seven things, rather, it’s HOW they do them that can make or break their efforts at making the workplace safer.

Create a Cultural Infrastructure: Embed Safety Into Your Operational Practices

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One of the Pillars of Safety Excellence that stands out for me is engagement.  Engagement at all levels is essential to maintaining a safe and productive workplace.  Engaged workers do things just because it’s the right thing to do. A motivated worker will work to get a reward or safety incentive, but an engaged worker will continually look for ways to make the workplace safer because making the workplace safer is the right thing to do.  It’s in his or her best interest to work safely; it’s in his or her coworker’s best interest to work safely; and it’s in the company’s best interest to work safely.

Never Underestimate the Importance of Empowerment

Creating a common-sense infrastructure around the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence is the key to creating a safety management system that is not only sustainable, but can morph and grow as your business needs change.  I have helped companies create safety management systems almost ten years ago and not only are these systems still in place, but they are thriving.  In each case, these systems (built around changes to their approach to each of the Seven Pillars) look very different than the ones that I helped these companies design and build.  These systems grew and changed in response to (or in anticipation of) changes in the business climate.

The secret to the success of these systems lie not in what was done, but also what wasn’t done. Essentially, the approach was to sandwich new behaviors between existing, familiar behaviors. By maintaining as much of the existing infrastructure I was able to retain the cues and the rewards, and successfully replace the poorly performing routines with highly effective ones. Even so, the credit goes to my customers who took the time, committed the right people, and spent the resources necessary to identify the cues and rewards and trust in the coaching that they were provided. I learned on those projects that change is more palatable when it is surrounded by things that won’t change.

Filed under: Safety, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sailing The Seven Cs of Change


Sailing The Seven Cs of Change

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

Photo courtesy of Asmundur

By Phil La Duke 

More and more safety professionals are coming to the conclusion that real, lasting change can only come as a result of a change to the culture.  For some, this means relabeling the same old schlock and positioning the same tired method as a new, “culture transformation”.  This trend concerns me.  While there are a handful of good (in fact, really good) change professionals out there, there are far more conmen out there whose only experience with change is nickels, dimes, and quarters.

For the record I am not against entrepreneurs making an honest living. But if we aren’t careful we can really screw up and have an uncontrolled and unplanned change with dangerous and unpredictable outcomes.

In my experience, change comes in distinct phases that sometimes overlap and may even move forward and backward.  These phases can be conveniently described using words that begin with the letter C allowing me to make my title pun.

Crisis

It’s said that change only happens when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing.  Organizations, like people, tend to actively resist change. Even positive changes that they know need to happen. Change, biologically speaking, is stupid and dangerous. If you are an organism that is flourishing—you have amply food and shelter, good breeding grounds and prospects, and low predators—changing even the seemingly most insignificant element can lead to extinction. Our central nervous systems are designed to resist change because it puts us in unpredictable situations. Of course we also live in a dynamic environment that is constantly changing and remaining static in a rapidly changing environment leads to extinction.
Organizations tend to resist change until the dissatisfaction with the status quo hits a critical level.
Not all change, is as Mao said, borne out of the barrel of a gun, but the more disruptive the circumstances the stronger the drive for change.

Creation of Vision

Unless leaders can construct a compelling vision, change will be stifled and obstructed. Change grows out of dissatisfaction with the current state, but change that is driven by dissatisfaction alone creates environment where the organization can go from bad to worse. An environment where change is made without a clear vision of the desired state leads to chaos and confusion and can quickly devolve into organizational anarchy. That may sound melodramatic, but in companies that I have seen fail, the failure tends to come gradually as systems breakdown and processes stop working. People still come to work, there is no reign of terror with the aristocracy being dragged to the guillotine, but there is a perceptible shift in work ethic. The good and capable leave the organization and the population reduces to incompetents who are too fearful to leave.

A compelling vision of a desired state focuses the population on a singular purpose, a common cause and an understanding of what they as an organization is trying to create.

Commitment

Legend holds that Hernando Cortez burned his ships when he arrived in the New World to demonstrate to his men that retreat was not an option. Irrespective of your feelings toward Cortez, his actions, however apocryphal, are an excellent example of how commitment to a goal can drive change. Faced the with the choice of either achieving the goal or certain death, it’s fair to say that Cortez’s men were deeply committed to change. Obviously, change can’t always be driven as ruthlessly or aggressively as Cortez, but leaders must aggressively push change by figuratively burning the ships, i.e. they must make it unmistakably clear that anything shy of  100% support for the vision will not be tolerated and those who can’t change attitudes will be forced to change jobs.

Communication of Vision

It’s not enough to have a vision; leadership must make a compelling argument for the vision and inspire passion for the desired state among the population.  Communicating a fierce vision that inspires the population is paramount to a successful organizational change.

Chaos

As the chances are implemented the organization quickly devolves into chaos. As theories become practices the numerous glitches make the change impossible and frightening. It’s easy for leaders to falter in there commitment to change when all seems lost.  Unless leaders are courageous and stick to the course they will not last long enough for the change to put down roots and grow.
Connection

As people struggle to create the new normal out of the howling chaos, they begin to see successes and reasons to hope.  At this point in the change, people start to connect these successes with elements of the vision.  They begin to connect with the desired state as something tangible and real.  These connections begin to forge the foundation of the new processes, tools, mores, and values on which a new and better corporate culture can be built. People tend to fiercely protect these newly forged connections and build norms around them.

Capability & Confidence

Slowly these connections and new practices start to yield real, tangible results and the population’s confidence rises. The organization becomes more capable as it repeats the new practices.  The reliable results that come with organization and personal capability builds confidence and the two form an improvement spiral, which ultimately makes the desired state a reality.

The desire state rarely comes to fruition exactly as envisioned or expected (remember change takes time and the vision often evolves and is refined as time elapses.) This isn’t a bad thing, often the ultimate state far exceeds the organization’s wildest expectations and desires.

 

Filed under: Organizational change, Safety Culture, , , ,

Stop Trying To Do It Alone: Why Culture Change Takes Collaboration


By Phil La Duke

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The approach d’jour to improving worker safety is to change the organizational culture to one that is more supportive of worker safety. The idea is so pervasive in the market place that many of those who recently were purveyors of Behaviour-Based Safety (BBS) have quickly switched to “cultural interventions” despite being thoroughly unqualified to provide such services.  It seems that every consultant that has read a book about culture is now promising to build a safety culture and solve all your problems.

The basic idea is correct; an organization’s culture can either make or break the safety function’s efforts. Furthermore, if an organization is going to change it has to do more than rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, it has to reengineer its foundation; it needs to change at a molecular level. It requires transforming the mission, shared values, and norms of the organization.

There’s a very simple flaw in all this: as a rule, safety professionals don’t lead change of this magnitude and no mater how great their desire attempts by safety professionals to effect real permanent change will fail.

Timing Is Everything

Culture change must be pushed from above and getting that level of buy-in is likely to require a level of dissatisfaction that goes far beyond worker safety.  Culture change typically is driven by a larger business need for change. For example, all organizations have a maturation cycle—they begin as entrepreneurships, evolve into professionally managed companies, and so on until they reach the point of philanthropic organizations.  Every time a company transitions from one stage to the next, it must reevaluate its values, mission, and vision.  Another opportunity for cultural change is when a company is facing bankruptcy and must drastically revamp its business model. In either of these cases, the larger business need for change affords a wonderful opportunity to include safety in the new agenda.

Collaboration Is Key

If the safety professional is going to capitalize on the changes being driven for other purposes he or she must be prepared and ready for the transformational push, and positioned such that safety is more than just an attractive addition to cultural intervention, but an essential one.

The key to this preparation and positioning lies in collaboration.  Safety professionals need to make a concerted effort to partner with other functions. The first relationship that safety professionals should cultivate is with the process excellence group.  A proven track record of collaborating with the process improvement group, positions the safety function as key resource in organizational change. Even the simplest changes will likely involve the process excellence group, and big organizational changes will most certainly employ these professionals.

Another essential collaborative relationship should be between Safety and Legal.  The legal department will likely be significantly involved in the architecture of change, and the more closely Safety is involved at the beginning of the intervention the more likely Safety can insinuate itself into the organizational changes.

Get On Board Early

Beyond collaborating with other functions, safety professionals need to understand the big picture of why the change is necessary, and what the change is expected to bring in terms of benefits to the organization.  A safety professional who understands the goals of the intervention is far more likely to make worker safety a part of these goals than one who is not sure of the role safety will play in the new order.

Climate Change Versus Culture Change

I’ve met many safety professionals who sit around congratulating themselves for already changing the corporate culture to one that values safety.  Hogwash. In most of these cases they have been successful in changing the climate—something important, and an accomplishment in its own right, but not the same as changing the culture. Culture change isn’t dependent on personalities, enforcement, or policies, but climate change is.  It can be difficult to see a meaningful distinction between culture and climate, but the most important difference is that climate change is typically a temporary change that is easily disrupted by a change in leadership.

Changing the organization’s view of safety is challenging and doesn’t happen over night. In fact, the process of changing a corporate culture such that it values safety can take years.  But with the right positioning and partnerships, safety professionals can play a pivotal and valuable role in culture change.

Did you enjoy this?  Hate it? Find it offensive or troubling? If so, I hope you will share it. The icons below will allow you to share this via Twitter, Facebook,  posting it to LinkedIn Groups or individuals, and even email it to individuals.  I maintain this and http://www.rockfordgreeneinternational.wordpress.com without direct compensation to promote Rockford Greene and my published work.  I’d sure appreciate it if you would help to pass the word to your fellow aficionados and or detractors. Thanks in advance, Phil

Filed under: Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, , ,

Stress and Worker Safety


We’ve all heard for years that stress will kill us, but is it possible that this will be in a workplace accident? Stress is a by-product of the triggering of our fight-flight response. Our bodies sense danger (typically from nonverbal, subconscious information) flood our bodies with more than 30 toxins, most notably adrenaline and before you know it a 90 lb woman is lifting a car off her child. But most often this dynamic is less dramatic. Instead, our subconscious senses a possible threat and drips the toxins instead of flooding our body. These toxins act on our bodies in low doses in much the same way as they would at high doses, but instead of lifting cars, we develop stomach problems. Instead of running at super human speeds, we develop heart disease. The biggest potential danger we are likely to face is change. Biologically speaking, change is stupid, dangerous, and reckless. Consider the animal kingdom. If you are a tern with ideal nesting grounds, an abundant food supply, few predators, and terrific mating prospects then any change you make could transition you from thriving to early extinction. Change is bad for people too; in general if something is working for you and you are successful, changing your situation exposes you to risks that might ruin you. Our bodies are wired to resist change and this resistance takes manifests in stress. Unfortunately we live and work in a dynamic world and change, often as not, is constant. So we are caught in a sucker’s choice, change and face possible extinction or hold the course and almost certainly failing. Fortunately our bodies have a solution: mistakes. Research has found that the average person makes five mistakes an hour (under ordinary circumstances). These mistakes are our subconscious testing the safety of making changes. When we are under stress the urgency of change is profoundly increased and our brain, therefore, needs to increase the number of mistakes it makes so that it is prepared to move quickly and adapt. In a high stress workplace mistakes are rife and human error leads the cause of injuries. But simply reminding people to work safely isn’t enough. Companies need to reduce the stress of the workers if they want to lower the mistakes they are working, and that is far more difficult than it might seem. I recently spoke with the global director of a Fortune 250 company who told me that the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) had noticed a major shift in the nature of the calls that it received. Prior to the economic downturn must complaints involved problems at work, but now calls about personal problems outside of work are about 3:1 to workplace stressors. There are limits to the influence a company can have on the stressors affecting their workforce. People are struggling to keep their homes, pay their children’s student loans. Safety managers must be cognizant of this dynamic and need to intervene in new and creative ways; reminding people to keep their heads in the game will ultimately yield nothing of value. Companies need to shift away from recognition and reward programs and toward stress reduction activities. There’s a real need for caution in selecting the appropriate stress reduction in the workplace, because so many of the stress reduction programs are, metaphorically speaking, big steam heaps of horse crap. So what can an organization do to reduce worker stress? 1. Improve EAP efforts. Your company may not be able create a worker’s paradise outside the workplace, but they can improve the way in which they help workers to work through issues. But organizations need to do a better job of advertising and promoting EAP. 2. Reinstate Benefits and Pay. When the recession hit, companies were quick to ask the workers to share the pain. Many companies acted in good faith, and many used the threat but companies who have been asking workers to share the pain of the economic downturn. It’s time for the “jobs creators” to start paying the workers back, if not in the interest of fair play, then in the interest of self preservation. I fully acknowledge that we are far from the good times of old, but companies need to invest in their organizations, and part of that investment needs to be an investment in the workers themselves. 3. Put Off Big Change Initiatives. Change, as I’ve said, freaks people out. And too many companies are trying to change everything at once. If companies want to reduce stress related injuries they need to slow the pace of change and postpone any change that is not absolutely essential. To a large extent, there is little a company can do to mitigate the stress workers experience because of problems outside of work. Companies can, however, mitigate the severity of the injury. The awareness that stressed workers will make more mistakes should trigger initiatives based at reducing the severity of injuries of the tasks most likely to have injuries caused by human error.

Filed under: Loss Prevention, Phil La Duke, Safety, , , , , , , , , ,

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