Phil La Duke's Blog

Fresh perspectives on safety and Performance Improvement

Want to Make things Safer? Take More Risks.


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


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, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Never Trust Anyone Who Claims Safety Is Their Number One Priority

Safety Priority

By Phil La Duke

The following is a retooled, repurposed, and recycled post that was origionally made to the now decommissioned Rockford Green International blog. (Since renamed the Worker Safety Net)

There are things that need to change in safety and they need to change fast.  Safety is losing ground, no matter how hard we try, we are losing ground in the court of public opinion—public policies are softening on safety (Michigan recently legalized the personal use of fireworks and the practice of riding motorcycles without a helmet—effectively rolling back almost 50 years of safety regulations.  Michigan may be a long way from where you live, but believe me these kinds of rollbacks aren’t isolated to Michigan.)

One of the primary reasons safety professionals have lost credibility is the insistence that safety is—or at least should be—an organization’s number one priority.  This ludicrous claim sets safety at odds with operations, and makes the both workers and the general public view us as kooks, imbeciles, or hopelessly out of touch.

Let me state for the record that I remain completely devoted to safety, I believe one’s right to make a living without undue jeopardy of loss of life or limb is a basic human right.  But how we approach the achievement of a safe workplace will greatly shape the likelihood of our success.

It’s tough to visit any workplace without seeing a poster that says, “safety is our number one priority”.  It’s a crock; no company ever has gone into business for the purpose of keeping its workers safe. Companies exist to make money. No sane person would manufacture, ship,  process, or manipulate anything if his or her primary motivation was to ensure nobody engaged in these activities got  injured. When safety professionals perpetuate the lie that safety is the number one priority they lose credibility and are alienated.  People hear, “safety is our number one priority” and know it’s either a lie, or the pathetic simpering of a deluded fool, in either case the prudent move is to assume the person spouting this nonsense can’t be taken seriously or trusted.

Imagine a worker who has been told that “safety is our number one priority” following any advice the boob who said offered the advice has to say; why believe that tying off while working at heights is essential to safety when the person who told you so also told you safety is your first priority?  If safety truly is your number one priority, don’t work at heights, period. But safety isn’t our number one priority, getting the job done is almost more important than anything else.

The effectiveness of a safety professional depends on his or her credibility; safety professionals have to stop forcing people to choose between working safely and making a livelihood. One of the most frequent complaints about safety professionals from workers and business leaders is that safety professionals are obstructionist policemen who, however well intentioned, don’t live in the real world.  People gravitate toward the practical and tend to disregard things that don’t make sense, or where they see over whelming evidence to the contrary. Safety professionals have to balance safety against the practical requirements of a job.

I want to be clear that I am not saying that safety isn’t an important criterion for success but there is a difference between saying, “making money is our priority, but we can’t in conscience make money while hurting workers” and saying “safety is our number one priority”.  Hurting workers costs money and is poor business practice, but when safety professionals makes the claim that their function, safety, is the primary reason a company exists, nobody in their right minds can take them seriously.

Safety professionals need to shift their thinking when it comes to worker safety, away from “safety as the right thing to do” to “safety as a crucial improvement initiative”. It may sound like I am nit-picking but the words we use shape how our constituents view us and whether or not they find us credible.  A safety professional without credibility is worse than ineffective; he or she is taking a job that an effective safety professional could otherwise be doing.

Safety isn’t a priority; it’s a value and criterion for success.  Frankly, we don’t want safety to be a priority—priorities change and shift where values endure and guide our decision making.  The safe execution of work must be a core value and a guiding behavior in any ethical organization.  Treating workers like chattle, or fuel to be used up in the furtherance of business is morally repugnant.  Safety must go deeper than being a mere priority, it must be the cornerstone of any business that is serious about sustainable success.

Sadly, many of the companies that proudly boast of safety as a priority are some of the worst offenders for putting workers at risk.  In these cases, safety is neither a priority nor a value.  Safety at these hell holes only becomes a priority after catastrophe strikes and then only when the climate of fear and retribution is in full swing.  When the smoke clears and the blood is mopped up, these companies quickly revert to bad behaviors and more misguided behaviors.

Filed under: culture change, Organizational change, Phil La Duke, , , , ,

The Rise of The Safety Extremist

By Phil La Duke

 Stop extremsim

“’Isms’ in my opinion are not good”
—Ferris Bueller, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 

fa·nat·ic (fuh-nat-ik) noun

  1. a person with an extreme and uncritical enthusiasm or zeal, as in religion or politics.

ex·trem·ist (ik-stree-mist) noun

  1. a person who goes to extremes, especially in political matters.
  2. a supporter or advocate of extreme doctrines or practices.

I write provocative material.  I deliberately try to elicit a visceral response and take people to a place where they can explore their deepest held beliefs and question basic ideologies of safety. The latest in neuroscience suggests that our decisions or made and our ability to change reside deep in our subconscious beneath our defenses. When something strikes a nerve at that level it can be difficult to  have a rational conversation, but in general, if one can at least reconsider one’s belief set maybe its worth it.

Why is it important to reexamine our deepest held beliefs? Because the world is a dynamic place and if our beliefs are static we become increasingly out of touch.  If we cling blindly to our beliefs and lash out to anyone who threatens our worldview then we run the risk of becoming completely and dangerously out of touch with the realities of your profession and become a useless relic.  That should be career suicide, but sadly even the most out of touch hacks can usually find work based on their years and years of experience.  But what good is 40.2 years of experience if that experience consists chiefly of self-congratulatory affirmations and retreads of theories that are a century old.

Not that every new idea is a good one.  There is as much crap spewed by the idea d’jour pundits today as there ever has been. And just because an idea or theory is new doesn’t make it any better than conventional wisdom, but it’s important that any professional consider new ideas and emerging thought with an open mind.

That’s getting tougher and tougher to do in safety, owing to the rise in extremist thought in safety. The merest suggestion that we discard a safety truism is likely to to create nothing short of a public out rage.  Take for instance the response to Heinrich’s Pyramid.  A recent thread on the social networking site LinkedIn elicited 3,186 comments ranging from the intellectually bantering to the crackpot personal attacks. The thread quoted a recent assertion by EHS Today:

“Heinrich’s assertion that 88% of accidents are the result of unsafe acts has been dismissed as something he just made up. There was no research behind it whatsoever. “ and asked the simple question “What’s your opinion? And why?”

According to a recent article by Ashley Johnson in H+S Magazine a poll the magazine conducted found that 86% of respondents believed either completely or somewhat in Heinrich’s theories, while another 10% reporting that they weren’t familiar with Heinrich’s theories.  The article is a scathing indictment of Heinrich’s theories from experts who question his methods, his conclusions, and generally speaking nearly everything had to say.  The article was balanced by a half-hearted defense that the numbers were never meant to be statistical predictors (the were, by the way) and that Heinrich never blamed the workers (he did. In fact Heinrich was a devotee of eugenics and believed that one’s race and ethnicity played a factor in the likelihood that a worker would be injured or cause an injury to other.)

The What does this all have to do with extremism? Plenty.  This demonstrates that  despite a growing body of evidence that deeply held belief will hold sway.  This in itself is not extremism, but it does create an environment where extremists thrive.  Why do people cling to beliefs that are refuted (there are still people who deeply believe in fake photos and film footage of the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot, even though the perpetrators of these hoaxes[1])? People tend to want to believe in what they’re doing and when people chip away at the foundation.

Its not just the Heinrich supporters who will lash out against any suggestion that doesn’t support their world view.  If you don’t believe me just publish something critical about Behavior Based Safety.  Within hours extremists and fanatics will marshal their forces and begin attacking you.  The problem has grown to such an extent that several editors of leading safety magazines actively avoid the debate more out of a desire to avoid arguing with fanatics than out of fear or intimidation.  But intimidation of the press is a goal of extremists everywhere —from Al Quida to the Ku Klux Klan to the Neo Nazis to the safety extremists—is to discredit, attack, intimidate, and generally silence the media which, if it is truly unbiased—will never buy there bill of goods.

Extremism Is Rooted In Fear

Let’s suppose you have 40.2 years of experience in safety where you served with distinction, and someone comes along and asserts something contrary to the foundation on which your entire experience is predicated.  What happens to your credentials and accomplishments and very identity as a safety professional when all on which it is built crumbles? People will protect their beliefs with a wildness typically reserved for mother grizzlies defending their cubs; they will make ugly personal attacks and seek to gather together like-minded souls close to them.

Extremism Loves Company

Social networking sites make it easy to reach out to a world of people. Some credit social networking with ushering in Arab Spring, but it also has a darker side.  Social Networking affords us the opportunity for the fanatics to get their ideas out to a sympathetic ear. Unfortunately, when it comes to safety, people are dying in the workplace while crackpots are postulating theories that are given equal weight with responsible theorists in safety.  I will leave the readers to decide which slide of the equation on which I fall.

[1] I’m speaking of the most famous loch ness monster photo and the actual film footage of a reputed big foot. The very people who first produced them convincingly disproved both of these.  If you want to believe in the Loch Ness monster or Big Foot God bless you, but what was the most compelling evidence has been disproven. And don’t even get me started on crop circles.

Filed under: Behavior Based Safety, Phil La Duke, Safety, Safety Culture, Worker Safety, , , , , ,

Phil La Duke is Full Of @#$%


By Phil La Duke

On Tuesday of this week I will be presenting Hardwiring Safety, Seven Tips for Changing Culture; it’s a topic I know well, having spoken on it in one form or another for the last nine odd years (if you know me, you understand how odd these years have been).  I thought that given my familiarity with the topic I would blow it up here and see what new insights I might be able to glean from it.  Too often safety pundits keep parading out the same old tired schlock in a marginally different package.  Not me; I’d like to think that I’ve grown over the last decade and a half (my waist-line sure suggests it) and so here is my attempt to tear down all I’ve said on the subject and start anew.

The Values of A Safety Culture

In my original speech, some years ago I prattled on about the values of a safety culture; I was an ass. The term “safety culture” is a misnomer.  At best safety could be a subculture, but it is not—in even the broadest sense of the term—a culture.  A culture is the codified set of shared values, rituals, rules, and taboos of a population.  In simple terms (and I am over simplifying it here) culture is how a group of people with common interests view various topics, like, for instance safety. So every organization has a safety culture to some degree—some have cultures that think safety is a bunch of nonsense while others feel it is the only true measure of their success.  Furthermore, changing a culture is more than just about changing the way a population does things, it’s about sharing what it values.

Changing the Culture Is More About Understanding Change Than it Is About Understanding Culture

Noted thinker on the topic of culture change, Edgar Schein developed a simple formula for organizational change.  Shine believed that change could only come when:

D + V + N > R

In this model D = Dissatisfaction, V = Vision, N = Next Steps, and R = Resistance.  In real terms, Shine’s model suggests that we can only exact real, lasting change by increasing dissatisfaction; creating a compelling vision of the ideal state; creating practical and easy next steps, and/or reducing resistance.

So throughout this discussion we will explore how my previous presentation matched up with this model, I suspect it will do so poorly. Before we move into the values, I should note, without realizing it, my efforts were aimed at vision-setting and viable next steps.  And I’ve never failed to change a culture, in fact, I was so wildly successful that many of my customers mistrusted the numbers, even though they gave them to me.  Of course I cheated.   I wouldn’t take on clients who weren’t already deeply dissatisfied with the performance of their safety efforts, so I didn’t really have to do too much to increase dissatisfaction, but if you are going to change your culture you likely will have to create some serious dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Value One: All Injuries Are Preventable

I’ve written several times on the hypocrisy and condescension of slogans like “Safety Is Our Number One Priority” and “Safety First”.  Such platitudes are disingenuous and the people who perpetuate them are either liars or fools or both. For some reading this, this is fairly obvious, while others will furrow their sub-simian brows and hammer out an angry email filled with mouth-breathing outrage.  So why revisit it? I am continually surprised at the shear volume of safety professionals who continue to self-righteously lie about this to his or her constituency.

This particular value conceals a prevalent belief that “that’s nice to say, but that’s not how it works out here in the world”.  I have since come to believe that this value should really read: “Accidents are inevitable, but injuries are not”. Things go wrong all the time, but with enough information about how workers are hurt, we can prevent injuries.  This seems tough, and mainly because most safety professionals work on the probability side of things instead of the severity.  Organizations often overlook the very real human drive toward expediency, and as a result they are surprised when people remove guards, take dangerous short cuts, and in general recklessly put themselves in harm’s way.  If organizations channeled that energy into reducing the severity of contact with a hazard, far more injuries would be prevented.  And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that safety is merely a relative expression of probability.  When we say something is unsafe we are describing something that has a high probability of in jurying someone.  There is no such thing as absolute safety, because for that to exist the probability of injury must be zero, and that is never the case.

Value 2: Compliance is Not Enough

Compliance is a poor measure of workplace safety.  Nobody was ever saved by compliance, but a company that doesn’t value compliance as part of an overall safety strategy is unlikely to be successful.  The idea that “okay is good enough” or that the bare minimum as defined by a third party that doesn’t understand fact one about your business, your operating climate, and your work constraints is a pretty good indicator that your organization’s leadership has its head stuffed in an orifice that would make a master yogi green with envy.  Companies need to build a foundation of compliance.  Compliance is a good place to start, and a useful argument to make for those reluctant to do the right thing as it pertains to safety, but making the argument that we have to do something because OSHA requires it is akin to having to convince someone not to torture and kill a child because its illegal.  No, we comply with the law because: a) we aren’t criminals, b) because following the spirit of the law is in the interest, not just of our workers, but our business overall; and c) because if we aren’t able to do the bare minimum how can we ever hope to do better? People who are satisfied with mere compliance have no business working anywhere; the aspire to mediocrity they are the static noise that interferes with the clear signals we try to send to the workers.

Value 3: Prevention is more effective than correction

This value is beginning to seem trite to me. If someone were to come up to me and say, “We’re world-class because we believe that prevention is more effective than correction” I might not laugh in his or her face, but I would almost certainly roll my eyes and make fun of them behind their backs.  I’m not disagreeing with the sentiment, but it seems so painfully obvious that it’s tough to take the speaker seriously.  When I hear some of the things that I’ve said about this in the past, I just want to say to myself, “no kidding? You just figuring that out now?”  The problem is that for this to be a value, instead of a tired platitude, this has to spur some operational behavior.  The response I would have for those (including myself) who spout this rhetoric, would be, “congratulations, now what are you doing about it?” Values have to be more than sentimental aspirations; they have to be the kind of non-negotiable absolute truths against which the quality of the leadership decisions is measured.  They have to be the acid test that tell us whether or not we are ethical or cowards.

Value 4: Safety is everybody’s job

The fact that I every preached this dribble is embarrassing beyond words, but I’ll go on for another couple of paragraphs anyway. Safety isn’t everyone’s job, well at least not the way that people think.  It’s nice to say while you polish the seats of cheaply made office chairs with your ass and think of what a swell job you would have if those idiots out in the field, or on the shop floor, or wherever their jobs take them would just step up to safety and stop hurting themselves.  Yes, I will acknowledge that we all have some responsibility for keeping ourselves safe, but the role the worker plays in keeping themselves safe is minuscule compared to the responsibility borne by the supervisors, engineers, and decision makers who blissfully think that the one thing that all injured workers have in common is that had ought be a damned-sight more careful.

I’ve written about how everyone plays a role in workplace safety, and certainly the worker has the responsibility for following safety rules and doing the job as specified, but many injuries are caused because the operation is working out of process.  I think that everyone has the right to expect that his or her employer has exercised reasonable judgment and taken appropriate measures to ensure that my job is not going to kill me.  A lot of people decry the rise in frivolous lawsuits, but they lose sight of the reason we have the right to bring action in civil court: it keeps people from killing people who have wronged them. Seems like a good system, but then I still pray, “if I should die before I wake…avenge me”; it doesn’t rhyme but then I’ve always been more interested in justice than in poetic meter.

Certainly this value applies to leaders who believe that they don’t have the time or inclination to protect workers from their own stupidity. Show me a safety system that promises to hold workers accountable for their own culpability in injuries and I will show you a system that sells, and a line of drooling consultants with the greedy pinched faces of ferrets and the amoral spiel they intuitively sense in lazy executives.

I think this value should be updated to: “Everyone plays a role in safety, and the organization takes pains ensure that everyone understands their roles and is accountable and engaged in fulfilling the role requirements.” It more wordy I grant you, but do you want it short or accurate?

Value 5: Safety is a strategic business element

I believe this value more now than I did when I first wrote it. People get to wound up in the emotional side of safety. Yes injuries are tragic, yes it leaves people horribly maimed and scarred and yes, it creates widows and orphans. Stating the obvious doesn’t really do anyone any good. And telling people “safety is the right thing to do” is condescending and insulting. In saying it we are implying that but for the intercession and wise advice we would turn the workplace into a site of such carnage that it would leave Pol Pot sleeping with the light on for the next decade.

Beyond the obvious moral and social benefits of safety, it is the smart business decision to make.  I speak to a lot of C+ executives (as in CEO, COO, CFO, somewhere along the line it became cute to call them “C+” executives…get it , they have a “C” + some other letters.  Clever.  I’ve found that in a fair amount of cases the C+ appellation is more appropriate in the grading system before grade inflation meant students got 4.9 gpas (what does it say for the state of mathematics where a student can get a 4.9 on a 4-point scale?) for trying hard and sucking up.  No, I like to think that a lot of C+ executives are just that, slightly above average, but not willing to put in enough extra effort to move that grade up to a B –. I realize I’ve wandered off track a bit. But even a C– executive can understand that hurting workers costs money, a lot of money.  In fact, I’ve never met an executive who said, “I’d love to hurt more workers, (especially that sonofa so-and-so Cranston he’s just begging for it) but I just can’t afford it.

When we are able to quantify in real, honest terms exactly how much it costs to hurt workers we are talking serious money, and that wasted purchase of human suffering gets even the thickest executive’s attention (well, not the thickest, I once met with a healthcare Human Resources Vice President who said that it didn’t cost them anything to hurt workers because they treated them on site.)

Value 6: Safety is owned by operations

It’s heartening to know that I wasn’t completely wrong about everything.  Safety absolutely has to be owned by those with the greatest control and clout in an organization and that is Operations.  Operations, for lack of a better definition, is how the organization makes its money. When Operations leadership say job, typically the rest of the organization says how high on the way down. Only Operations can create the sense of urgency needed to effect real, sustainable change.

So there is the value setting portion of the equation. As for the next steps, well I think you have to figure that out for yourselves, or better yet, hire me to help you find it, but anyone who promises you a universal solution without even asking question one about your organization is either a fool, a liar, a thief or that all too common combination of the three.

Hardwiring safety into all activities cannot be achieved through sermons and scoldings. Hardwiring safety requires a reimagining of the nature of safety itself.

For some safety professionals, the role of the safety professional is cheerleader;  a perpetually perky advocate of all things safe.  Unfortunately, this kind of safety professional typically has only the most superficial understanding of what it takes to make a workplace safer.

Other safety professionals see their roles as parental, eternally haranguing a petulant workforce into straightening up and flying right.  Command and control approaches to safety don’t require much more awareness of the nature of safety than that required of the cheerleaders.

Some safety professionals are witnesses to business.  They walk around the workplace worrying over charts and counting boo-boos.  These safety professionals are too busy looking at what happened that they can’t ever internalize the true nature of safety. In most cases they don’t really care about the nature of safety. They content themselves with passing charts to Operations.

Until safety professionals can see safety as an expression of risk and can advocate for risk reduction through coaching Operations can safety become imbedded into all our activities. Safety has to be more about removing variation from our processes and protecting people from injury when things go wrong and our processes fail.

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

Trust Me

Stone wall copyBy Phil La Duke

There isn’t any magic bullet when it comes to making the workplace safer but the thing that comes closest is trust. No change, no improvement, no carefully crafted organizational change initiative will ever come to fruition until and unless workers trust the leadership of the organization. If workers mistrust their supervisors, the leadership, or the safety professional even the best safety efforts will fail. It sounds simple, but in my career I have seen more organizational change effort—whether aimed at improving safety or changing benefits—fail because of mistrust.

It’s a shame, because every day, we ask—no expect—worker’s to trust us, and let’s face it, in many cases there is scant reason why workers’ should believe us when we tell them that everything will be better if they just do this or that or when we tell them that this time things will be different.

Workers’ Aren’t Stupid (Well Most of Them Anyway)

Workers’ do stupid things, we all do, and like most (if not all) workers are skeptical when they hear that the “flavour of the month” will be the salvation of the workingman. Most don’t want to invest time, effort, and emotions into something that they know in the deepest recesses of their souls won’t last as long as the life of the alpha fruit fly. And with the safety community trotting this dog and pony show after that can we really blame them? Workers want to do their job, collect an honest wage and return home safe unharmed. It sounds simple, maybe even trite, but it’s true.  The problem with getting people to change the way they conduct themselves in a business setting—whether or not they follow the rules, whether or not they take unreasonable risks, and the very basis of their decision-making—depends on the level of trust within the organization.

The Nature Of Trust

When most of us think of trust we think about our willingness to believe that people wouldn’t deliberately harm us, whether the nature of the harm be physical, psychological, or financial, or some other means I’m too lazy or intellectually limited to ponder.  In basest possible terms we count on the fact that they, as The Simpsons barman Moe Szyslak put it, “wish (us) no specific harm”. When we trust someone we count on them to consider our best interests when they act, and not “screw us over” in some way.  Most safety professionals are trust worthy in this respect.  But there is more to trust than just believing that given have a chance your safety rep won’t mug you in the men’s room.  In fact, there are several different kinds of trust.

  1. Trust in motives.  When we mistrust someone’s motives it’s generally because we suspect that they have an alternative agenda, about which they aren’t being completely honest and above board.  We suspect that the person we mistrust is putting their own needs  (or the needs of the Elvis impersonator who lives next door, for all we know or care) before our needs, and if momma ever taught us anything it’s that if we don’t look out for ourselves no one else is likely to. When workers mistrust the organization it’s not that they necessarily think the safety professional or the leadership are looking out for themselves at the expense
  2. Trust in competence.  Sometimes we don’t trust people, not because we believe they have a larcenous heart, rather because we believe they have cheese and sawdust in their heads.  And when it comes to safety we want to know that the people making decisions about how work is completed actually know what they are doing, that their decisions won’t get us killed or leave us horribly maimed. We may believe that people making the decisions hear t is in the right place
  3. Trust in Judgment. I know some safety people who have never met a dumb idea that they didn’t immediately love. The rest of the organization just rolls its collective eye when it hears the details of the hair-brained scheme-d’ jour
  4. Trust the facts. It’s one thing to trust people have your best interests at heart and another thing to believe that they have the facts straight and still another to believe that they are properly interpreting the facts.  We live in an age where people are bombarded with facts. Facts without context, facts that are often confused and sometimes just made up. More and more people seek out the most ludicrous information to support whatever they want to believe, and its tough convince them otherwise.  So it stands to reason that workers will openly question the facts presented to them.  Just look at the practice of smokers.  There has been evidence linking cigarettes and cancer (not to mention heart disease) and yet as I write this, countless thousands will spark up another one. Why? Because sometimes even when the facts are known a person simply choses to ignore them.

It takes a lifetime to build trust and only a simple lapse in judgment or bad decision to wipe it out. Mostly trust is built on two things, past experience and consistency. And while we can’t change past experience we can develop a climate of consistency.  People tend to trust what they  can predict.

And let us not forget that trust is a two-way street; leadership can’t expect workers to trust them unless they first trust workers.

Filed under: Organizational change, Phil La Duke, 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.


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.


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.


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.

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, , , ,



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