by Phil La Duke
There’s been a lot of yapping in the safety community about creating a safety culture and some of it has merit and some of it is just yapping. In fact, there are a lot of people working in the safety profession who know as much about changing a corporate culture as they do about building an aircraft carrier.
A note about the photos in this week’s blog, I took these photos at the Detroit Institute of Arts, they are images from the mural painted in the courtyard by Diego Rivera. A masterpiece you can only see in Detroit.
Contrary to what many will tell you, a culture is more than just “how we do things around here” it’s the codified set of behaviors that keep us from killing each other. People who study corporate culture and change talk about culture in terms of:
Norms. Norms are the accepted practices and methods of a population. Norms determine what the population judges as “normal” and what is “abnormal”. Norms form the foundation for etiquette and identifies what is polite or impolite. To a large extent, norms determine an individual’s success. When new people join a population there are strong incentives to learn and adopt the norms. One does not feel comfortable until one is completely operating within organizational norms.
Habits. The secret to change lies in understanding how our habits to a very large extent determine how we live our lives and whether we become morbidly obese, change-smoking, degenerate gamblers. In his 2012 book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business” Charles Duhigg explores how, despite free will, most of us live our lives doing things that are self-destructive, unpleasant, and that inhibit our success merely out of habit. Duhigg believes that organizations, like individuals, operate largely out of habit, and while it may seem that people at the top of organizations are geniuses or imbeciles, much of a organization’s performance is rooted in habit.
Habits can be helpful or harmful. Some habits, like getting up early to exercise, carry with them significant benefits, while others, like eating when you’re not hungry, can cause serious, long-term health problems; its no different with organizations and those of you who are looking to change the “safety culture” of your organization should pay very close attention to those habits that are having the greatest influence over the relative safety of the organization.
Shared Values & Taboos. Every culture is marked by a collective sense of what is important (values) and the things that are, without exception, unacceptable (taboos). Shared values not only shape the key decisions made by leaders in an organization, but also make the actions of leaders more predictable which in turn reduces stress and uncertainty in the population. Taboos make it easy for the entire population to know where the line is and to expect certain and uncompromising reprisals for those who violate a taboo. Shared values and taboos are often informal and unwritten and may well conflict (typically in dysfunctional organizations) with the expressed values or official policies.
Culture versus Climate
A culture is a deeply embedded and codified set of expectations; its largely unconscious—people may aspire to change or direct a culture, but they are seldom successful except when those trying to change. Cultures are how companies survive and thrive and, as such, it is deeply imbedded in the collective psyche of the population. Climate, on the other hand, refers to the largely transitive state of the environment. Climate change is most often driven by an intense outside force that is generally short in duration. The resulting change is typically rapid but it is rarely lasting and things quickly revert back to the old state once the outside force is removed or even lessened.
The term “safety culture” has become muddled by years of misuse and hype by safety vendors who purportedly bring culture change but bring climate change instead. James Reason, the father of Just Culture, believed that before a company could move to a culture of safety it had to first create a culture of justice. Throughout the years, a mixture of a confusion over Reason’s teachings and out and out misleading branding created the idea that somehow some companies had a “safety culture” while others did not.
All companies have a safety subculture, in that all companies have norms, habits, values, and taboos related to safety. So essentially, “safety culture” is a subset of the overall corporate culture and is characterized by:
Safety Norms. The things that are accepted practice within safety. Safety norms can be as simple as the example set by a veteran worker and emulated by new workers or as complex as the ways that workers interact with leadership and the safety function. Norms are typically the unspoken and even subliminal acceptable ways we do things. Organizations tend to reward those who follow the norms in safety and punish those who don’t, often without even being conscious of doing so.
Work Habits. All organizations have a slightly different risk tolerance and one company’s killer job is another’s routine work. Risk tolerance is highly influenced by national culture as well as by safety norms and other subcultures.
Shared Values & Taboos about Safety. Every organization has an imaginary line when it comes to safety. Once that line is crossed the individual who crosses it is judged to be reckless and to have taken an unreasonable risk.
Something Every Organization Already Has. As I mentioned, every organization has a safety culture, but every organization’s is unique. Understanding how your culture views the safety of the workforce takes research and an open mind. It is often extremely useful to have an outside set of eyes (not necessarily a vendor, it could be a customer, or someone from another location) to view your culture and identify the value it places on worker safety.
The leader plays a pivotal role in worker safety and in shaping the culture. Ideally, the leader’s behaviors are in alignment with the desired, norms, taboos, and habits of the organization, but when they are not, these leaders tend to be pressured out of the organization (although too often they create a great deal of dysfunction before they go). There are two ways in which leaders influence the corporate culture: how they behave and how they manage.
The Shadow of the Leader
Strong leaders create such a powerful influence that their personalities can be seen in the attitudes and behaviors or those who work for them. Bellicose tyrannical leaders tend to produce departments where individuals scream and bully other departments to get their own way, where leaders who exhibit a strong ethical sense and who reinforce the values tend to produce people who act likewise; it’s not magic, people have a very strong drive to conform. So in a very real sense, leaders shape how the organization behaves and make decisions.
Dysfunctional Management Breeds Dysfunctional Operations
It should surprise no one that organizations with poor systems tend to produce a great deal of chaos and a periodic review of policies and procedures is necessary to get better results.
Ultimately, the leader determines whether the workplace will be dysfunctional or productive, and whether or not people will make good decisions or take reckless chances.
Mao said, “all change comes from the barrel of a gun” and I think there’s something to that. Before people will even consider changing they will explore every option that allows them to keep doing what they’re doing. People will resist change even if they believe it will likely benefit them, why? Because of fear of the unknown. Why do we tell our children not to take candy from strangers when everyone knows that strangers have the best candy? Simple, subconsciously we play out a really simple and pragmatic decision making process: we must assume the unknown will harm us to survive. To foment change we must convince the population that it cannot survive and thrive if we continue to operate in the way we have been. We must make taking the candy from strangers the most attractive, or at least the least loathsome option, and that takes some doing.
One of the best ways to foment change is the financial argument. Injuring workers costs a LOT of money, and the bulk of the population is either convinced that all management cares about is money or is open to the possibility that operations that aren’t financially successful will be closed, sold, or face pressure to make brutal cuts in benefits and even pay. Also, tapping into whatever your organization finds most important—whether that be productivity, tonnage shipped, or whatever—and expressing the costs in those terms (we would have to ship an additional hundred tons of cargo to recoup that cost. It makes an impression.
To some extent, there is, or should be, intrinsic dissatisfaction of the status quo if anyone is getting hurt on the job. But in cases where there is a fair amount of organizational inertia, fomenting dissatisfaction can be tricky. Even organizations that ostensibly are dissatisfied with some element of its performances may be fiercely resistant to change. Dissatisfaction with the end result doesn’t always mean dissatisfaction with the status quo, and many organizations perish because, despite a deep and abiding dissatisfaction with its performance it is not particularly dissatisfied with its current tactics.
Why Does The Organization Have To Change
Dissatisfiers must be compelling and easy for the average person to understand. True dissatisfaction comes from the answer to the question, “why do we have to change?” When it comes to worker safety the answers tend to be pretty simple:
- Changes in Our Business Environment. Applying static solutions to dynamic problems lead to disaster and clinging to those static solutions until it is too late has driven many companies out of business. The speed at which our business environment changes dictates the speed at which our culture must change to address the outside forces. In safety, the cost of worker injuries (both direct and indirect) are driving changes in our safety strategies and tactics.
- Changes In Society’s View of Workplace Deaths and Injuries. Both my grandfathers died from workplace injuries. My father and brother-in-law both died of work-related illnesses. I lost a great uncle to a workplace injury, and I’ve lost count of how many friends I’ve lost to workplace injuries. In many of these cases, people looked at what happened and said, “that’s a shame”. Today, these deaths may well have been prosecuted as homicides! The point is that while there was a time when workplace deaths were seen as unfortunate incidents, society now views them as completely unacceptable.Rising Insurance and Medical Costs. Rising insurance and medical costs are big news. For years these costs have sky-rocketed and now are at the point where companies with poor safety performance are finding it difficult to compete.
- Growth. The business strategies for running a small company aren’t the same as those for running a midsized company which aren’t the same as for running a large company. Organizations that understand the need to upgrade accounting, IT, and sales systems to accommodate growth often miss the very real need to upgrade safety management systems as well.
Making the Case For Change
When creating dissatisfaction, you have to make the business case for change. Often, leaders will adopt a “if it aint broke don’t fix it” approach to organizational change; this approach is often dangerous and irresponsible. When making the case for change you should be able to articulate the answers to these questions:
- What is it about the current state that is unacceptable?
- Where would you like to take your organization?
- What is the difference between where you are and where you would like to be?
The Cost Of Safety
The cost of safety (both direct and indirect) must be calculated and shared in a way that is meaningful to the organization. Expressing the cost of safety in ways that reflect the corporate culture are key to making safety a priority. For example, if your corporate culture places a high value on sales, then expressing the costs of safety in terms of the added sales required to replace the money spent on worker injuries is a great way for the organization’s leadership to connect the dots between sales and worker injuries.
Also, it is important that you use actual cost figures and avoid averages, formulas, or other ways to calculate the “true cost of injuries.” These injury calculators use averages derived from figures across all injuries. Unfortunately, the spectrum of injury costs vary widely and where your particular industry falls on this continuum (or where your company falls on the continuum within your industry) will rarely represent your actual costs. It’s a lot of work to research and calculate these injury costs but the alternative is for an executive to (rightly) dismiss your figures as conjecture. In many cases, your figures will be significantly higher than those calculated by formulas any way. And if you’re figures aren’t particularly compelling (some companies don’t spend much on worker injuries, and may in fact not hurt many workers at all, until they have a catastrophic system breakdown that causes a fatality) you shouldn’t be focusing on cost and shift your attention to something more appropriate to your situation.
Dissatisfaction with a compelling vision for success leads to frustration and dysfunction.
Why Create A Compelling Vision For Success?
Beyond the need for a vision for a better workplace you have to create a vision that makes sense to your organization and to do that you have to create a vision that details precisely what the desired behaviors look like. In many cases, the desired behaviors are simply a reiteration of your expressed values; getting people to “walk the talk”. Creating a vision for appropriate behaviors should also address norms and confront norms that don’t match the corporate values (“we say we want “’X’ but we do ‘Y’ instead). The vision should always be crafted such that it remains in the context of the dissatisfaction (“we are doing this because we don’t want “Y” any more”). You can’t achieve change without changing your organization’s habits and norms.
Creating a Compelling Vision of Success
A compelling vision of success answers the question, “What do we want our culture to look like?” While this may sound like an easy question, it can be difficult to answer. In fact, you need to ask yourself what you need to do not only to create of vision of success, but also to make it reasonable, practical, and achievable? I can’t answer that question for you; in fact, no one outside your organization can. While outsiders can facilitate sessions that lead you to answers to these questions, no outsider will ever know your organization better than you do; beware and avoid those who think they know your world better than you do.
Culture And Habit
Many of are norms are really just organizational habits. In his 2012 book, The Power Of Habit Charles Duhigg explores how institutional habits effect populations. According to Duhigg, habits essentially burn a path in our brains which allows for automatic behavior. This path allows our brain to have a sort of a subroutine that helps to automate behavior. Duhigg believes that once a habit is truly formed it can never be erased. The key, Duhigg says, is to overwrite a new, acceptable behavior over the existing undesired one. Duhigg also believes that there is little difference between personal habits and institutional, or cultural habits. Habits, according to Duhigg, form a loop. They begin with a cue, for example boredom, followed by a routine, buying a snack from the vending machine and visiting with coworkers, which leads to a reward, in this case social interaction. If an individual wants to lose weight and stop ingesting unhealthy calories will have greatest success by keeping the cue and reward the same, but substituting the routine for something healthy, for example walking around the block, while keeping the same reward (that is, social interaction after the routine).
Of course to make these kinds of changes (in your personal life or in your organization) you need to become very aware of the cues and rewards associated with the habit, and this in itself can be very challenging. In my experience an organization’s bad habits around safety tend to manifest most frequently in what I call the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.
Focusing On Getting It Right
In safety, it’s easy to focus on the negatives. Organizations tend to address worker safety in a series of “thou shalt not…” statements. It’s easy, for example, to create policies that forbid working on energized equipment without first locking out. But these kinds of fiats aren’t all that effective. People tend to pick and choose which rules they follow and which ones they ignore. (in fact, I wrote an article on this subject Why We Violate The Rules http://www.fabricatingandmetalworking.com/2011/05/why-we-violate-the-rules/ ).
A better way of effecting lasting change is to work to instill values. Many companies have their golden rules, or safety commandments, but in a few rare cases there are companies that have created an atmosphere where people behave in a way that truly supports worker safety and a brother’s keeper mentality. So what’s the difference between the companies who have slogans hanging on the walls and those whose values are manifest in the workplace? The successful companies make decisions from the top of the organization to the grass roots based on deeply embedded values that model the “right thing to do”.
To mimic these companies’ successes, you should:
Plan for Success. This may sound trite, but success is impossible without active planning and a whole lot of work. No pun intended, but success in worker safety doesn’t happen accidentally, rather, it is the product of hard work on the part of dedicated and talented people.
Create a Compelling Vision of Success. I mentioned creating a compelling vision of success before, but it is important enough to repeat it. A compelling vision of success isn’t a safety slogan or a lofty bit of prose hanging in the corporate headquarters lobby. A compelling vision of success is a simple statement that clearly illustrates how the organization is going to approach keeping workers out of harm’s way; it’s the things people must do to keep themselves and their coworkers alive and unharmed.
Defining desired habits. It’s not enough to write a list of things people need to do to stay alive, you must also tackle the habits that typically prevent people from doing these things. Using our lockout example, one might include a statement like “we always ensure that energy has been isolated and controlled before attempting maintenance” but unless you also seriously consider the reasons people might NOT always do this your vision of success doesn’t ring true. It becomes a platitude instead of a guiding value or governing behavior. When defining the desired habits you need to take a hard look at “what about when…” statements or “except for…” conditions. If you don’t address the cues and rewards that lead to dangerous behaviors your vision will fall on deaf ears.
Crafting Next Steps
Schein’s final element of change is next steps. A dissatisfied population with a compelling vision for success is powerless and rudderless without clear and practical next steps.
I mentioned a moment ago that I would explain what I see as the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence.
Early in my career I was fortunate enough to participate in benchmarking the world’s safest companies and in so doing I discovered seven elements essential to achieving safety excellence:
Training isn’t limited to safety training, in fact, the most important training for keeping workers safe is in their core competencies; workers who don’t have mastery of their basic jobs can’t do their jobs safely.
If your process isn’t robust and stable you subject your workers to risk of injuries
Hazard and Risk Management
Removing hazards before people get hurt is the key to a sound safety management system.
When we understand and correct the causes of injuries we can prevent them from recurring in other areas.
Too few organizations have any real strategy for safety. Safety strategy involves taking a big-picture look at the safety of the workplace. Safety strategy development should establish periodic reviews of policy to ensure that anachronistic rules, policies, and procedures do not jeopardize worker safety.
Accountability is different than blame. Safety excellence depends on good systems of accountability that hold employees answerable for the risks they take.
Workers at all levels must be empowered to make sound decisions and to take action to make the workplace safer, but beyond mere empowerment workers must be engaged. Empowered workers are entrusted with the right to make decisions but engaged workers intuitively know the right decisions to make.
These seven elements are typically where a company picks up bad habits. It’s not that companies don’t do these seven things, rather, it’s HOW they do them that can make or break their efforts at making the workplace safer.
Create a Cultural Infrastructure: Embed Safety Into Your Operational Practices
One of the Pillars of Safety Excellence that stands out for me is engagement. Engagement at all levels is essential to maintaining a safe and productive workplace. Engaged workers do things just because it’s the right thing to do. A motivated worker will work to get a reward or safety incentive, but an engaged worker will continually look for ways to make the workplace safer because making the workplace safer is the right thing to do. It’s in his or her best interest to work safely; it’s in his or her coworker’s best interest to work safely; and it’s in the company’s best interest to work safely.
Never Underestimate the Importance of Empowerment
Creating a common-sense infrastructure around the Seven Pillars of Safety Excellence is the key to creating a safety management system that is not only sustainable, but can morph and grow as your business needs change. I have helped companies create safety management systems almost ten years ago and not only are these systems still in place, but they are thriving. In each case, these systems (built around changes to their approach to each of the Seven Pillars) look very different than the ones that I helped these companies design and build. These systems grew and changed in response to (or in anticipation of) changes in the business climate.
The secret to the success of these systems lie not in what was done, but also what wasn’t done. Essentially, the approach was to sandwich new behaviors between existing, familiar behaviors. By maintaining as much of the existing infrastructure I was able to retain the cues and the rewards, and successfully replace the poorly performing routines with highly effective ones. Even so, the credit goes to my customers who took the time, committed the right people, and spent the resources necessary to identify the cues and rewards and trust in the coaching that they were provided. I learned on those projects that change is more palatable when it is surrounded by things that won’t change.