More Deming on Safety: Adopt the New Philosophy

Deming’s second point is “Adopt the new philosophy. We are in a new economic age. Western management must awaken to the challenge, must learn their responsibilities, and take on leadership for change.” In writing this point Deming could well be describing safety.  For years Japanese companies have viewed the worker as a resource, as the best source of ideas for improvement, but also long-term partners in business; certainly a wise organization would do everything in its power to preserve and nurture something so vital to its success.

Adopting the new philosophy in safety manifests itself in several important ways.

  1. Injuries are waste and need to be managed as such.  Far too many safety pundits are still preaching that “safety is the right thing to do”, they continue to preach about moral imperatives for companies to protect worker at all costs.  Whether or not companies have any compunction to protect workers is between them and the workers.  That having been said, organizations need to protect their competitiveness, their profits, and their efficiency and all this begins with a relentless pursuit of waste reductions.
  2. Stop worrying about changing the culture and start worrying about changing your processes.  Too often safety professionals stick with what they know and don’t venture too far beyond it. Unfortunately, safety professionals typically don’t know all that much about organizational development, transformational change, or organizational psychology.  Even so, that doesn’t seem to be sufficient to stop safety vendors from shilling half-baked culture change solutions to organizations. Nor does it stop internal safety professionals from championing initiatives of which their sole qualifications are limited to reading an article in the odd safety magazine or attending a session at a safety conference.
    That some organizational cultures inappropriately undervalue safety is indisputable, but making the leap that the Safety function is capable of changing that on some grand, enterprise-wide scale is laughable. On the other hand few safety professionals understand process mapping, value stream analysis, and the other tools and methods necessary for process improvement.
  3. Integrate the Safety Into Other Business Functions. The days where Safety is a separate business function are rapidly coming to a close.  Maintaining a safety infrastructure with Safety professionals must end.  Just as the Quality function evolved into a vehicle for process improvement so too must safety.  As long as Safety professionals see themselves as discrete from the overall operations and somehow able to operate in isolation from production it will always be at risk of being dropped from the corporate team.
  4. Leadership Must Advocate for Change. Leaders are often maligned by safety professionals. Too many times safety professionals blame their own failures on a lack of leadership commitment. In this case Safety professionals are right:  Leaders SHOULD be visible and outspoken advocates for safety and organizational change that supports it.  That’s not to say that safety professionals shouldn’t play a role in this initiative.  Safety professionals should provide expertise and guidance to leaders, many of whom, don’t know how to begin to advocate change.
    If safety professionals are going to be trusted counselors to the leaders there is much work they need to do:
    1. Quit pretending to know more than they do. Safety is an area of expertise that requires practitioners to have a deep understanding of a diverse range of disciplines, but there are limits to even the most learned safety professionals’ curricula verities.  There is a natural tendency (bordering on compulsion) for safety professionals to advise far beyond their knowledge base and once labeled a vacuous windbag it’s hard to been seen as having any opinion of value to offer.
    2. Research and Analysis. Perhaps the most useful service a safety professional can offer is comprehensive research coupled with razor-sharp analysis on the best way to leverage the things uncovered by the research.
    3. Offer Guidance, Not Advice or Opinions. One of the most important thing that I recently learned is that offering guidance is tough. Frequently, what we see as guidance is opinion or just plain butting in. Guidance is marked more by listening than by advising someone as to what they had ought to do.  Guidance is invited; advice or opinions are not.  Safety professionals need to transition to trusted counselors than pouting eunuchs that huff and sigh when they don’t get their ways.  But offering guidance requires trust, and trust takes time to build.
  5. Recognize the Realities and Challenges Endemic to the New Global Economy.  Deming developed his 14 points over 50 years ago, yet even then he was able to recognize that even then we were in a new economic reality.  Even as safety comes under increasing government scrutiny the scarcity of resources available for workplace safety continues to plague safety professionals.  The stark reality is that while the number of demands placed on safety increase, the resources are shrinking or trending flat.    
  6.  Improve the quality of safety training and ensure its efficacy. My background is in organizational development and training and I will say unequivocally that the most safety training is wholly inadequate for anything except for checking the compliance box.  The biggest opportunity to transform the safety of the workplace lies in the improvements that can be made in training.  The better a worker is prepared in the tasks associated with his or her job the safer that worker will be.  I wrote an article on how safety training could be improved, What’s Wrong With Safety Training and How to Fix It so I won’t revisit it here.

Deming’s work remains the quintessential guide to quality, but the lessons one can glean and apply to safety are timeless and substantial. In studying Deming’s thoughts on quality we can transform safety and in so doing our industries.

Footnote: Phil La Duke will be speaking at 1:30 p.m at the National Safety Council on October 31, 2011

About Phil La Duke.  Phil La Duke is a contributing editor and safety columnist for Fabricating and Metal Working magazine, an editorial advisor and contributor to  Facility Safety Management magazine, and a contributor to ISHN magazine.  La Duke is a highly sought after international speaker and author whose brash style and often controversial take on emerging issue is a favorite of the international safety community.

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