World Class Begins with Attitude

This year, I am dedicating my blog posts to exploring what is world-class in safety. As I we closed 2019, the discussion was about how some organizations like to throw the term “world-class” around when it comes to safety. They use the term as a part of marketing safety without really thinking about what it means to be best in class for protecting their people. For some, it means compliance with the law. For others, it might mean having lunches when there are no injuries for a month. When it really gets down to the real meaning of world-class, it begins with having a world-class attitude toward safety.

There is much debate about world-class safety. Does it exist? Is it measurable? Are there metrics? How is it performed? Can we compare it to other companies? Honestly, those are good questions. Honestly, I am not sure there is a right answer. I do think that there are principles that an organization can develop to create a world-class safety attitude. Before any of the metrics or processes can really be evaluated, there first has to be the right mindset. There has to be the overall compass directing the efforts and organization to the path of world-class. So, here are my five principles of world-class safety.

1. It means we care enough to focus on reducing and eliminating harm

Measuring all the injury and first aid rates does not compare to actually looking at your team as people and realizing that their pain is bad for business. There are too many stories of the zero injury companies that have a large incident. We are not chasing a zero incident rate. We are driving for solutions that prevent people from hurting for doing their job. Yes, seeking no harm will affect an incident rate. But it is not the incident rate that is the goal. We have to learn from every incident, adapt based on near misses, and improve through observation.

2. It means there are no boundaries for protecting our team

A 1987 speech from Paul O’Neill as he took the helm of Alcoa summarizes this best (Full Story Link)

“I want to talk to you about worker safety. Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Our safety record is better than the general workforce, especially considering that our employees work with metals that are 1500 degrees and we have machines that can rip a man’s arm off. But it’s not good enough. I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries”.

A shareholder asks about inventories in the aerospace division. Another asks about the company’s capital ratios.

“I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEOs. It will be because the individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: They’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence. Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution. That’s how we should be judged”

If there is a solution to prevent harm to our team, we must drive relentlessly to complete it.

3. It means our people are our most valuable asset and resource

Too many companies have trouble believing that if you really care and protect your people, they will protect the company. It is a lean mentality idea. Use a good process, give it time to work, use the results to course correct the path. A good process will yield a good result. We too wrapped up in seeing immediate impacts and results. These short-term, micro-managing, profit first processes get in the way of world-class in more ways than just safety.

4. It means we will communicate openly about safety

This loosely ties to the first principle. We cannot shut down communication because we reached the goal of zero. We cannot quit driving to find other hazards to eliminate, listening to the team concerns, or seeking improvement because it has been a year since the last lost-time injury. The organization must be open and available for dynamic and honest two-way communication. If there is a hazard, it needs to be communicated and fixed. If there is a better way or new technology, it should be evaluated to see if or how it might work. If someone claims that having too many Pepsi machines and not enough Coke is a safety issue, we need to be able to say no. It is about sharing the message and keeping the team going the right direction.

5. It means the safety culture is indistinguishable from the company culture

This is where world-class begins

Beginning the Journal to World Class

One of the more interesting conversations that a safety profesional enters into from time-to-time is that of world class safety. This statement is used as part of an interview where the company is attempting to attract a better than average safety person or as part of a generic statement that makes the company sound marketable to the masses. It seems that the term world-class is thrown out a lot in many different aspects and scopes.

What I find most amusing is the idea that when someone outside of the safety profession says they want a world class safety program, it usually means they want one that meets basic OSHA compliance. Given the condition of many companies’ stance to safety that might be a very true statement. World class may be just simply meeting basic compliance. I once knew of a manager who stated that OSHA was the Cadillac of safety programs. He was looking for more of a Toyota. *heavy sigh*

I tend to believe that world class is more than OSHA compliance. A company should not use that term unless they really plan to put the money, time, and energy into that process. There are a few statistics that define world class. A couple of really large scale safety consulting firms have created the metrics and have the data to help support what drives the top 5% of all safety performing organizations. The data gives some strong indicators but I am still a skeptic at heart. I know that the methods of evaluating injuries goes back to the OSHA 300 log and the OSHA incident rate. This is a metric that can be deceiving and deceived.

What I do believe is that world class is based on a simple principle, is the company really looking out for the best interests of their workers? The data definitely shows the truth in this principle. Case studies about safety progress and turn-arounds show the same. It really is about caring about the team. A company that is really striving for world class is looking beyond compliance. They are looking for ways they can better protect and adapt to their employees’ needs

One of the first principles of world class is a functional safety committee. I have read many articles and attended various conferences that talk about what makes a great safety committee. A safety committee can lead many positive activities for a company. It is the voice of the employee, an advocate for projects, a sounding board for ideas, a public relations group, and so much more. One of the first items most companies talk about when they approach their idea of world class is starting a safety committee. My response is always, “Great! What is the committee’s capital and expense budget?” *wide eyed, mouth open, astonishment* “Budget?” They say, “we were not wanting to spend anything.”

So the not so long journey to world class begins and ends

As we enter the year, my plan is to continue this look at world class. What it is and what it is not. How do we begin the journey? What are some of the basic ideas of focusing on our employees and that real long-term, never-ending process that leads to real world class safety programs.

Culture Cannot Exist without the People

When someone says safety culture, what comes to mind?

Methods?

Systems?

Behaviors?

People?

Standardization?

I was recently at a conference with some peers and a great discussion started about global, organizational culture. I do have to note, I loved the way they talked about their company culture, not just safety culture. Safety was conveyed as an integral piece of the overall culture. In other words, they had no company culture without safety. 

The discussion was focused around creating a system that would create a company culture for their global network. Also, the company had been around for decades. So, they were a highly diverse company. They wanted everyone to use the basic tools, principles, and essentially speak the same cultural language of their company. The basic idea was to take that amazing diversity and create a single culture that could function in synchrony. Their goal was not to take away from the diversity but to use it to sculpt what would become the organizational culture. 

This is what got me to think more about culture across this scale. Can there be nuances of culture (specifically for me the safety component)?

Safety culture is like any other cultural component. It can be based on so many people based factors: location, age, education, and so many more. From the creation of a safety culture standpoint, this is where I feel we fail as companies. The company is driven by a laser focus on lean mentality to standardize. So much so sometimes that the tools and processes are forcefully integrated into the culture. They forget that lean is about having tools to eliminate waste and using the right tool for the right process. The local culture is not a waste. It is something that needs the right tool to be applied. 

Here is a rough example. The idea of peer-to-peer observations has always been a tremulous path. So often, it is not used or implemented in a way that reaches its full potential. If a culture of the location or region is one that does not bode well to that type of interaction, why force it? There are other observation and hazard recognition tools available that can be just as effective.

I love the story of a very dynamic supervisor I worked with. He was amazing. He loved uplifting his people. He was very handshake, high-five, pats on the back, energetic leadership. There was a subset of our team that culturally did not like to be touched. He had to adapt his energy to their culture. And he did! And he continued to be super successful! He did not force his method. He used other motivational tools to achieve the same goal. The overall company culture of inclusive and positive leadership was fully working. There was a nuance to the culture. 

So, how do you create the organizational culture and still allow you sites, regions, and people to maintain their culture? There is no silver bullet approach, but there are some basic principles that will help.

  1. Create a cultural vision statement, and use it as the litmus test.

  2. Teach the tools. Expect the right tools to be used. Don’t expect the same tool to be used everywhere

  3. Focus the culture on embracing problem-solving and continuous improvement.

  4. Talk to the front line employees about culture regularly and ask if it is working

  5. Invest in training and reinforcing the principles and tools of the culture

Culture is the culmination of the people that make up the workplace. A company should have a company culture and should work to educate and reinforce that culture. The organization should also remember that cultures have little differences that make them special. These differences should be inclusive to the culture and embrace those aspects of the people.

Communication is about the who

My own arrogance gets in the way of my objectives much more than I would like to admit.

This post will take some time to explain. But if you make the journey with me, I promise that I will make a point 🙂

Throughout my career and life, a common theme continues to emerge. Yet, I always keep doing exactly what keeps causing me grief. And even knowing that today, I am not sure that I will really embrace the change.

In high school, I was in speech and debate. I was pretty good at it too. My real ability was to be able to BS. Give me a topic and watch me ramble on about items that were like the topic but not really the topic. I competed in two different categories. Both were limited prep speech processes. One was a formal persuasive speed (extemporaneous), the other was informal and more laid back (impromptu). I really loved impromptu. It gave me a lot of joy to talk about fun things of my own interest. The problem was that I wanted all my speeches to be impromptu. It was later in college when I went back as a coach and really saw the difference. My coaches in high school would explain and explain that extemp needed to be very fact based, formal, scripted almost. I always chose to do it my way. This limited me. I did well but never as well as it could have been. Why? I wanted it my way refusing to change my style to what the audience needed.

In college as a chemistry major, there were very different types of methods that I was taught. Quantitative, qualitative, and organic chemistry were very different in their approaches, even in the way they kept lab books and wrote up findings. In a typical me fashion, if I found one way of writing something up that I liked I kept using it. I would just write it like I wanted to. My professors would comment on my writing style and try to guide me. Again, I wanted it my way.

In my first safety job, I would write reports and send emails just like a scientific write up and then wonder why no one read them. I had to have it my way. Eventually, I learned better, but I was slow to learn that lesson (and still am as you will see).

When I began work on my masters in business, I wrote my papers just like a scientific paper. Again, I did good but not great. I had to learn to write based on the topic. A statistical review is (or should be) different from a leadership case study.

In another job, I became interested in safety training. I took on a mentor as part of a company program. I deliberately wanted someone in instructional design. I was paired up with an amazing person, who again, made me focus and reflect on not only what I needed to say but who I was saying it to.

My greatest challenge was my dissertation. It was an APA format paper. During the many, many revisions there were parts of the paper that continually gave grief to my mentor, my committee, the department chair, and multiple editors. I kept wanting to cite safety information as part of the work. From a psychology perspective, it confused those not in the safety field and was very hard to format. I, being a tenured safety person, refused to change that information. Quick sidebar for background: The dissertation format was 5 chapters. Each chapter was reviewed and revised between 2-4 times. My full dissertation of all chapters combined was on revision 11 when it was accepted for publication. What made revision 11 so different? I took out the safety citations that did not add real value to the psychological study. I could have potentially completed the work sooner if I had just not been so stubborn about communicating the way I wanted. What is even worse is that my dissertation was about creating meaning in safety training. The findings pointed to making the information pertinent to the employee. Evidently, I struggle to learn from my own work. 🙂

Why have a blog? Because I want to communicate the way I want.

That was a really long story to make a simple point. One that I still struggle with everyday. Before your next email, training, talk, or paper take a moment to really consider your audience. Is this what your audience needs to hear? Is it what they expect to hear? Is it something that makes sense to them? Is it meaningful for them? Will it have meaning for them? Are you delivering it in a way that helps them see the meaning in your communication?