Your Success May Hinge On Your Alignment With The Organization’s Maturity

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By Phil La Duke

In recent weeks I have used this forum to explore the rift between business executives and safety professionals.  This disconnection between the two parties is a serious issue facing many of today’s safety professionals and one that promises to get far worse before it gets any better. In the course of my considerable work in safety transformations and safety organization change consulting[1] I’ve spent considerable time working with members of both sides of the argument and I can see real validity to the opinions of both the executives and the safety professionals.

The Argument Is Seldom About The Problem; It’s About the Solution.

When you consider the collective complaints of safety professionals about executives or vice versa, the parties seldom disagree that there is a problem—if workers are getting injured neither party is happy—rather the parties quibble about the details: how big is the problem? what is the best course of action? how urgent is the problem? It would seem that these details would be fertile ground for compromise, unfortunately the roots of the argument over approach and details are deeply philosophical and neither side is likely to give up ground without a vicious fight. The answer to each of these issues is imprinted by both sides’ philosophical approach.  What’s the best course of action? Leadership may believe that the bare minimum compliance is the best, and most fiscally responsible course of action, whereas the safety professional may advocate in favor of a more involved and costly approach that will address not only the symptoms but will serve to build a foundational model that will be applicable to other functions as well.

It’s Not A Question of Right Versus Wrong

A colleague of mine at ERM has done truly terrific work in organizational maturity mapping.   Organizations mature along a predictable pattern in all their management systems; they tend to begin in chaos move toward event-driven and compliance focused, on to behavior-driven and a process focused, and ultimately mature into organizations that are enterprise-driven, and performance focused. Unfortunately, not all functions mature at the same pace.  Sometimes the safety function progress far slower than the rest of the organization, and this misalignment typically leads to the swift replacement of the safety leadership in favor of personnel more closely aligned with the overall organization’s maturity level.  In other words, if the executives are behavior-driven and process focused, but the safety function tends to remain event-driven and compliance-focused the executives will tend replace key safety personnel with people who have ideas closer to their own.

What’s far more common is a safety function that is enterprise-driven and performance-focused in an organization that is lagging behind in maturity.  Imagine an organization where the leadership remains focused on compliance and driven by events but where the safety function is pushing for an enterprise-wide approach that is performance-focused.  The leadership, convinced that the organization is safe enough and that any further investment to take the organization beyond mere compliance is unwarranted in the best case and wastrel in the worst.  The safety professionals begin to see the leadership as shortsighted or even uncaring.  The executives, for their part, start to see the safety professionals as softheaded spendthrifts. Both sides begin to harbor resentment until one party (usually the safety professional) bubbles up in frustration and does something stupid and unprofessional like cussing out a colleague or becoming openly disrespectful to the other party.  This type of event may or may not lead to the dismissal of the offending party.  More likely than not, the event will seemingly be ignored (but not forgiven or forgotten) until some other event (like a reduction in staff) makes it easy to dispose of one side or the other without confrontation of unpleasantness.

Expediting Organizational Maturity

While it’s impossible to skip a step in the organizational maturity continuum, it is possible (and important) to understand where your organization currently stands and, with guidance, one can expedite the move towards a more mature organization; I won’t get into that (why provide any more free consulting than need be?), except to say that trying to push organizational maturity without sufficient expertise can be dangerous to the safety professional’s career. People will eventually accept change, but they seldom forgive it.

When Culture Conflicts With the Individual, Culture Wins

If you’re a safety professional misaligned with the corporate culture you have some decisions to make. If you can be happy working in an organization that is behind you on the maturity continuum it’s no great effort to do the job and do it well.  The key is to understand that the current state is neither permanent nor dependent on the current leadership.  The organization will evolve and change when it is ready to, and (lacking outside intervention) there is nothing to do but patiently wait.  But if you are a safety professional who cannot stand waiting for the organization to catch up to you, you would be better served by seeking an organization more closely aligned to your particular philosophic approach. Staying on and throwing tantrums or becoming completely disengaged doesn’t do you or your organization any good.

Misalingment between the maturity of the safety function and the overall organization is one of the most common sources of frustration and animosity  in workplaces today. The adage, “a house divided against itself, cannot stand” has never been more true than when safety and leadership have different visions.


[1] I understand the fact that I actually work in the safety profession comes as a shock to many of the mouth-breathers who assume, without fact one, that I am merely a safety blogger and journalist.  Never under estimate the stupidity of some people.

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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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