By Phil La Duke
Many of you (you know who you are) just read this headline and thought, “of course not we have a very clear strategy”. Some of you (not many in my experience) are absolutely correct, while others sadly are deluding themselves. It’s not that you don’t have great ideas or even a first-rate plan, but even some of the brightest and most forward-thinking organizations (and their safety practitioners) routinely mistake a series of seeming related tactics for a strategy. In my experience there are scarce few who understand the difference between strategy and tactics.
Is a strategy all that important? Well…yes. A strategy is the means by which one achieves one’s goals. In safety our goal should be the reduction of risk to the lowest practicable level. The word practicable sends shudders down the spines of good safety professionals everywhere because there is a tendency for organizations to cop out on safety. When we say “practicable” or “practical” it gives organizations a way out. If a problem is perceived to be too expensive or impractical to fix leaders can dismiss it as such and move on with a clear conscious. Of course in the real world we have to recognize that there are limits to what we can or should do in the name of safety, but we have to balance that against the “that piece of PPE is too expensive” excuse making. We as a profession are often rightly accused of going overboard with safety and we need to combat this perception, first and foremost by knocking it off.
We certainly need a strategy, and if we think we already have one how do we know if we don’t? Wow, you’re really asking good questions this week. So let me break it down.
A good strategy (heck even a crummy one) will clearly articulate where you want to go in quantifiable terms, and that’s where a lot of us safety folks stumble. We tend to speak in the vagaries of trade. Instead of talking about a zero-injury utopia, our strategy should be more solid and tangible. For example, instead of a strategy for reducing injuries (which let’s face it, while this is certainly our goal, effectively we’re just saying we want to fail less than we did last year. What other business function could get away with such a vision?) we might try a strategy for shifting the ownership and management of safety to operations (the people who have the most concrete control over safety).
For a strategy to be successful it must win supporters within the organization and for that to happen the strategy must provide a demonstrable value proposition. People need to understand why accomplishing the strategy is good for them, the organization, or society; in short, people need to know why they should support the strategy.
The ends seldom justify the means, especially in safety and your strategy should clearly outline the guiding behaviors and criteria for success in pursuing the strategy. People must understand what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Consider the dubious strategy of lowering a company’s injury rate. Is it okay for the people to deliberately under report? Can healthcare providers intentionally downplay the severity of an injury to keep it from being a recordable? Or can case management workers disallow legitimate work injuries by claiming they happened off the clock? In most organizations these tactics would be considered unethical, but for workers to be engaged the organization has to identify the lines before anyone crosses them.
Throughout the execution of a strategy those involved have to stop and check their progress. Without a criteria for validating whether or not a strategy is still on track things can quickly meander off track and devolve into chaos. Validation can be built into a strategy in the form of milestone and can be managed using metrics that are identified in the strategy.
A strategy has to do more than just provide a philosophical vision it has to provide a line of sight from the kickoff of the project until the strategy can be seen as a complete victory. The strategy must, in no uncertain terms identify the victory conditions and had best deliver on the value it promised when it was first approved.
So given these criteria do you have a strategy, or do you have a collection of related tactics? It may not sound important, but when you are asked what your safety strategy is you had better have more than a stupid look on your face.
If you do have a strategy and you want to understand how effective it is ask yourself these questions:
- How does this activity specifically support the strategy? In a lot of cases I see organizations spending a lot of time and money doing things in the name of safety that have little to do with accomplishing this goal.
- How are all of my activities connected? If you can’t draw a clean line of sight between all of your safety activities you should ask yourself why on Earth you are continuing to do them.
- Do your metrics align with your strategy? Too often we find ourselves collecting data for the sake of collecting it. We decide what information to collect first and then we struggle with what the information is telling us. The only metrics you need concern yourself with are those that support the strategy or that are required by statute.
- Does the activity return commensurate value? In many cases safety practitioners fill their days with things that cost more than any benefit they could ever hope to provide.
Strategy is an area where many safety organizations are weak and without a strong strategy we put our jobs and people’s lives in jeopardy.