Choosing Your Approach To Culture Change Should Be Driven By Need Not By Desire

by Phil La Duke

When you decide to transform your safety culture you will find many people offering to help and since that help can come with a pretty big price tag you will want to be confident that it works. The snake-oil salesmen and petty conmen so prevalent in the safety field that when I suggested that it was wrong to steal people lost there mind and messed their trousers.  In short, when someone is selling hammers your organization looks like a nail.   When it comes to transforming an organization’s Safety Culture  one size definitely doesn’t fit all and while many providers insist that a single change model can be fitted to any organization, you really need to begin the diagnostic process before you even take bids or decide on specific methodology. Dismissing the out-and-out snake oil almost all methods fall into three main categories based on an organization’s place on the change continuum.

Current State Approach Description
Executives understand that the local sites operate under substantial risk but local leadership either underestimate the risks or don’t take the risks seriously Transformational Approach A team of Safety Culture Change specialists guide the site on a voyage of discovery toward the presence, nature, and potentially serious consequences of the risks at the local sites.   The key is to allow the organization to become dissatisfied with the current state on its own and to be forced to admit it has a problem.
Executives aren’t certain of the risks under which their local sites operate or are seeking verification of internal findings Diagnostic Approach A team Safety Culture Change Specialists analyze and assess both the local and corporate cultures and score the organization on its maturity in seven to ten key business areas
Executives are fairly certain of the risks under which the local facilities operate but lack a safety infrastructure for harmonizing local practices with the corporate vision Structural Approach A team consisting of Safety Culture Change specialists work with the local site to build a Safety Infrastructure that is harmonious with the corporate vision.

Most of these change models can be directly traced to David Gleicher’s work while he was at the contract services pioneer Arthur D. Little sometime in the 1960’s[1].  It’s tough to give a more finite reference because this formula as been cannibalized to the extent that there are numerous versions some that are attempts to simplify Gleicher’s formula and others that make it more complex, in most cases for nothing more than complexities sake.

[1] Source:

changeThe Transformational Approach focuses on fomenting dissatisfaction by forcing the local organization to face its inadequacies and the gaps between its current state and the corporate vision.  The key to this approach is to have an outside team guide the organization through the process of accepting that they are at risk and that things are not as great and safe as they want to believe.  I believe that this needs to be done by an outside team because: a) people tend to be blind to their own inadequacies; b) people tend to downplay the risk because “no one has ever been hurt by x before”; and c) while people will generally learn to accept change they will seldom forgive it or the people who brought it.”  The team who facilities this kind of transformation must also be chosen carefully because if it is to heavy handed then the organization will treat them as interlopers and auditors. The inadequacies MUST be found and reported on by people within the organization, unless they own the problem they won’t be dissatisfied with the current state.

A Diagnostic Approach helps corporate leaders define or refine a compelling corporate vision for safety and identify the gaps while preparing a roadmap for successfully harmonizing local practices with corporate vision.  This can be done by outsiders or an internal group, but the kind of forensic digging can be difficult as one function hoards information.  An outside group tends to be less menacing and less threatening to Bob in accounting who won’t release the confidential Workers’ Comp figures to “just anybody”.  Crafting a vision for success begins with knowing where you are now and having a pretty good idea where you are now, just doesn’t cut it.

In my experience, where most organizational change efforts fail is in the “next steps” or first steps as it was originally called.  It’s relatively easy to get the C+ suite unhappy with the current state, and it’s almost as easy to get them to form and articulate a compelling vision for success, but when it comes to making the hard choices and allocating appropriate resources to make that vision a reality it can be tough.  This is another area where it’s useful to employ and outside resource because internal resources tend to get pulled off projects, the project gets put on hold, other priorities come up until the effort dies on the vine.