You Say You Want a Revolution

“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you aint gonna make it with anyone anyhow”—John Lennon

There are a lot of people in the safety world that are calling for change.  Typically this call for change is articulated in fairly gentle and vague terms. “We need leadership commitment” or “communication is key” leads the parade of platitudes.  This is harmless but it doesn’t accomplish much beyond making the safety professional feel and, to a lesser extent, sound engaged.  All these calls are likely to change precisely squat.

Changing from a culture where safety is for wimps, safety is too expensive and disruptive, or that safety is in any other way undesirable can not be an iterative process; in short this kind of change takes revolution, not evolution. When Deming first promoted his 14 points for Quality, he was far from universally accepted

Revolutions sound scary—the word conjures up images of guillotines and firing squads. But the business world has seen the quality revolution, the Lean Revolution, and the information revolution all brought exciting possibilities with them.  But even these weren’t bloodless coups.  As a new philosophy takes hold the business axioms they replace fight like wounded badgers for survival.

“All Change Comes From the Barrel of A Gun”—Mao Tse Tung

While the Utopian view of safety that many safety thought-leaders espouse sounds nice, few in the workforce see a compelling reason to change how they conduct themselves relative safety and without a compelling reason there can be no lasting change. As a former colleague used to put it, change comes when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of changing. Or as noted culture expert, Edgar Shein, put it in his first fundamental law of change, “Principle 1: survival anxiety or guilt must be greater than learning anxiety” So in other words, nothing is going to change as long as people are either satisfied with the way things are or are too scared of what the future holds. A few worried safety professionals hunched over computers arguing over the finer points doesn’t foment the necessary discontent with the status quo to change a $10 bill let alone a culture.

Shein’s formula for organization can be loosely stated as:


where D=discontent, V=Vision for the Ideal State, and N=next steps and R=Resistance

Fomenting Discontent

Fomenting discontent in the organization means walking a line between being an agent for change and being a discontented and uncooperative turd who is unable to play well with others.  Additionally, organizations like organisms tend to have built in systems for defending themselves.  Changing a culture requires fortitude; it doesn’t take many missteps for the organization to turn on the fomenter of discontent.

Cast the Vision

Fomenting discontent without articulating a clear and compelling vision of how things could be, but are not. Casting a vision of a future state requires leadership, creativity and courage.  Unless one can question one’s most cherished beliefs, one’s most deeply held values, one can never hope to change a culture.  One has to look into the very eyes of God and call him fraud before one can honestly craft a vision of any real validity.  Casting the vision takes guts, in questioning the status quo one risks making blood enemies, because it’s one thing to question one’s own beliefs and values, but quite another to question someone else’s.

Articulate the Next Steps

A vision for what must happen and a healthy level of discontent alone can not lead the population to the Promised Land.  A leader must communicate a clear and reasonable roadmap for moving from the current state to the desired state.  Unless a leader can do so, the population will judge the change too risky and decide against adopting it.

Changing a culture is relatively easy to the far more daunting task of building an infrastructure for sustaining it. The safety snake oils are often able to fob off a climate change with a culture change.  Unlike a culture change, which the population typically defend a climate change will only last as long as the antecedent remains present. (Think of a climate change as exemplified by the speed trap.  Traffic slows because drivers know a policeman is laying in wait, but once the policeman is no longer present, the drivers resume speeding.) Culture change consultants love climate change because if the parasitic relationship between consultant ends so too does the change; it’s as if the consultant is able to repossess the services rendered.

The ability to sustain a culture change—without adding a complicated and expensive infrastructure or dramatically adding headcount—is what separates a good culture change initiative from a sham, climate change, smoke and mirrors.  Millions are spent on shoddy, junk science solutions that merely mask the problems in an organization and create climate change.

One must be prepared to topple the regime to effect change, but regime change isn’t the same as culture change. And a failed coup usually ends in the termination of those who attempted it.  Safety professionals who attempt to change the culture (even if they are successful) seldom survive the change.  Who needs revolutionaries after the revolution has succeeded?  While people will eventually accept change, they seldom forgive the person responsible for it.


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