Creating Leading Indicators

by Phil La Duke

Several weeks ago I wrote a post on indicators, which spurred a bit of interest in what I saw as appropriate indicators for the five antecedent processes to which I ascribe safe outcomes (just to refresh your memory, I am referring to: competency, process capability, risk and hazard management, accountability systems, and worker engagement). Several readers seemed disappointed that I didn’t spell out leading indicators for all of the processes. I have been mulling this over for several weeks and I’m afraid that what I am about to write will disappoint and maybe even frustrate some of you; and yet, as is my wont, I am going to write it anyway. I won’t give you leading indicators for these processes. It’s not that I don’t want to give away the secret recipe, quite the contrary, I have been writing this blog since 2008 (with a major interruption where at the insistence of an employer at the time that resulted in me scuttling the blog and deleting all posts prior to that time.) and have generated about 35,000 words of free advice in service of the safety community. You may not have always agreed with it, taken it, or even appreciated it, but it can never be said that I withheld critical information because I thought I could sell it to you instead of providing it for free. My thinking is that if you can do it without me you would, and if you were to do it in partnership with me you would end up with a better result faster, but then I digress.

When I first conceived this article I thought I would write a straight-forward piece outlining the leading and lagging indicators and lay out what I would see as the best choices for the business processes that I always seem to prattle on about; and then it occurred to me that there is scarce little value in me telling you what indicators to use. You see, there aren’t any shortcuts in safety, and that includes safety professionals. This is a problem that plagues the safety profession. Safety practitioners are so obsessed with keeping up with the proverbial Joneses that we often lose sight of the fact that safety practices aren’t and shouldn’t be universal. Is it so hard to believe that a practice that is applicable to construction may not be applicable to mining? Or even something that may be right for one company may not be right for another? In the interest of editorial openness I suppose I should remind you that I make my living providing essentially custom solutions (sure I have an 80% template and yes I use methods that have worked in the past, but I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution that I keep reselling.)

Too much in safety are derivations on a theme and too few in safety are willing to either question these themes or come up with something truly original and more importantly something absolutely appropriate to his or her industry, company, or circumstance. It’s far easier to copy something that someone else is doing or buy something that a snake oil salesman is selling the solution d’jour.

So while I won’t tell you what indicators to use to measure these antecedent processes and where they are leading you, I will share with you how to create sound leading indicators.

Before we get to how to create leading indicators, we should remember the importance of pairing leading indicators with corresponding lagging indicators. Lagging indicators have taken it on the chin of late, and that’s a shame. Lagging indicators, when properly paired with leading indicators, are important ways to get a complete picture of the health of your safety efforts.

The key to creating leading indicators is to draw a line of site from an action to a planned result. Let’s say you are trying to lose weight (something with which I struggle) if you want to create some leading indicators you first have to identify things that tend to result in sustained weight loss. Doctors are keen to tell you that the best way lose weight is to consume less calories (diet) or burn more calories (exercise). So you could set your caloric intact and level of exercise as leading indicators. Those of you who have tried to sustain a weight loss effort already understand that these indicators really don’t help you that much. So what can we do to make them better?

  • Set Performance Goals. Indicators are bits of data that tell you how either you are doing toward your goals or help to you to stay focuses on activities that will help you achieve your goals. It amounts to this: without goals indicators are simply pointless exercises.
  • Get specific. Instead of tracking the amount of calories you consume, you would probably get better results if you set specific caloric goals; for example calories per meal instead of a broad goal of “eating less”. The more broad the indicator
  • Guard against unintended consequences. Think of fad diets. Fad diets generally work in creating a short-term goal (i.e. weight loss) but often have destructive side effects related to a nutritional imbalance (if you ate nothing but potatoes you might lose weight, but you would also likely contract scurvy) okay, maybe not, I don’t know how much vitamin C is in a potato and don’t really care. Even so, the more broad the indicator, the more likely there is to be “noise”. By noise I mean other factors that may be causing a change that have nothing to do with your efforts. Continuing our weight loss example, you might find yourself dieting and exercising and conclude that these activities are causing rapid weight loss, but you may have a serious medical condition or metabolic imbalance that is causing (or increasing) your weight loss. This get’s even more likely as we start using leading indicators designed for other industries.
  • Make sure you can gather good data. I have an ap on my iPhone that helps me to track what I eat. I set a weight loss goal, a timeframe for completing it, and the ap tells me how many calories I can consume to be on track to meet my goal. The ap matches up with my Nike Fuelband and adjusts my caloric total based on my activity level. These are two great leading indicators that are easy to track. Good data makes it easier to keep from being mislead by the indicators.

In a nutshell, that ap is a good explanation of indicators: you set a goal, you identify the activities most likely to result in the results you desire, and you measure your progress toward those goals.