Changing The Safety Culture: You Got To Want It

By Phil LaDuke

 

To some extent the world is driven by desire, and I have said (quoting a long-time friend) that you always have the time and money for what is truly important to you.  As I continue battling to sell safety systems to companies who truly do need to change their cultures I am continually beset by companies who are quick to say all the right things but when it comes to making a commitment they just plain lack the political will to get things done.

Of course no one will ever admit that they don’t want a safe workplace; to do so would brand them a villain worse than any war criminal.  So why is it so difficult to sell companies who employ large staffs dedicated to making the workplace safer? And why is it harder still to maintain the momentum it takes to drive lasting and sustainable change in an organization?  Will.  So many companies are so fixated on finding a magic bullet for safety that anything that is of any magnitude is quickly disregarded.  But it’s not really the difficulty in selling safety solutions that is troubling, rather, it’s the lack of commitment to sticking with change when things get tough, or scary, or chaotic.

In my many years as a corporate culture change agent I have found that the strongest driver of change is the desire for success—and that applies not just to safety, but success at everything.  I am reminded at the biblical story (and forgive me folks by I am by far no theologian or biblical scholar although I did get ordained on the internet but given that the entire ordination consisted of me filling out a form and having Reverend credentials emailed to me I don’t think it qualifies me as a religious scholar) where a man approached Jesus and asked him what he had to do to gain salvation.  Jesus told him that he must sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor and come follow him, AND THE MAN WENT AWAY SAD.  Wow.  And I thought I made poor life choices (and for the record I have) but what a whopper that guy made.  It doesn’t matter your religious persuasion (or lack thereof) what is important is that this guy believed that Jesus could deliver the goods and when he heard what it would take he decided that it was too high a price to pay for eternal life.  And he went away sad.  Was he disappointed that the solution was so life changing or was he expecting Jesus to say something like, “don’t sweat it, I can get you in, I know people.  When you get to the gates of heaven just tell them you’re with me”?

I think there are strong parallels between this biblical story and the state of safety.  People come to the providers of culture change solutions and expect the answer to “the key to culture change is taking this course, or having your employees read this book,” or “all you need to do is…”  I think when they realize that culture change is a laborious process that involves engaging outside experts and changing the way the organization operates and a foundational level they go away sad.  Or they buy snake oil and hope it will work.

Of course some try the longer term, more holistic approaches, and many of them are successful (I have a pretty good track record of helping companies be successful if I do say so myself) but so many others give up, and having given up refuse to be “fooled again”.  I am partnering with a company who is really excited about my approach to culture change, but there is one snag.  The one person within the company who has the most power and influences to get me in front of his customers doesn’t believe that sustainable culture change is possible.  I have provided him with case studies of customers I have successfully served 10 years ago who are still sustaining the gains that I helped them achieve.  I have provided references so that he could hear testimonials from the proverbial horse’s mouth all to no avail.  The lessons he learned from the snake oil salesmen will not be easily unlearned and in fairness to him, I would meet anything that promises safety salvation with a sharp dose of skepticism.

Why do so many change initiatives fail? Too often it’s because the organization wants to take components of the solution and expects that implementing a “lite” version of the solution.  In the 1980’s the Japanese Management was all the rage.  Many companies tried to emulate the results that the Japanese companies achieved, but when they looked at all the components that the Japanese style of management required they quickly started eliminating practices. The resulting watered-down solution was completely unrecognizable as an effective management system.  We see the same thing today as companies try to imitate Google or Yahoo, taking ingredients of the recipe only to be surprised that the effort completely fails.

But in the final analysis, it’s not a lack of time, money, resources, or solutions that get in the way of safety; it’s a lack of desire.  If leadership continues to value productivity over people, the bottom line over the front line worker, tactics over strategy, the immediate business needs over the long-term solid business decisions, all efforts to improve safety will be transitory at best.  You can’t change anything and expect it to remain the same.

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