Safety Can Learn From Marketing

ISHN - June 2016
By: Terry L. Mathis
Printable Version

The Senior VP of Marketing at a Fortune 500 company told me he wanted his customers to feel like buying his product was the most logical decision they had ever made. He wanted his marketing research to ensure that his product would exactly fulfill its purpose and both meet and exceed the customer's specific needs. He went on to describe how he wanted his follow-up service to his product to reinforce the buying decision at every level. He wanted his brand to become the symbol of satisfaction and to create customer loyalty. This vision and these goals had been the foundation on which he built his company's marketing strategy.

Consider for a moment the difference between this approach and the average corporate safety program. Many companies still view their workers as safety's problem rather than its customer. The goal is control, not marketing. Risk must be controlled through a hierarchical matrix addressing conditions, worker behavior and combinations of the two. Risk is eliminated or reduced conditionally through engineering and design, and worker behavior is controlled through the enforcement of rules and procedures. The safety department builds its product with no marketing research or customer input. Little or no thought is given to branding the safety effort. Compliance replaces customer satisfaction and there is no re-enforcing of the buying decision to be safe other than the lack of discipline. Safety culture is often viewed simply as an informal consensus that somehow results in peer-to-peer enforcement of rules and procedures. This combination of objectives and activities is mistakenly labeled as a safety strategy.

Enlightened leaders and their safety specialists are realizing safety is an organizational goal that requires its own true vision and strategy. This does not require new technologies or methods. Marketing is already doing it. Safety can simply look, learn and duplicate. Just as marketing targets the needs of external customers, safety can target the needs of internal customers. Those internal customers can be studied and asked about their needs and what they view as valuable to their own safety performance. Participation in a safety program can become a logical and rewarding experience that is reinforced on a regular basis. Safety can have a brand that fosters teamwork and loyalty. Safety culture can go above and beyond reinforcing compliance and truly elicit pride and discretionary effort from the workforce.

The first step in such a transition is a change in mindset at the leadership level. Organizational and corporate leaders can still delegate the busywork of safety, but not the strategy. This necessitates the realization that safety needs a strategy and that a bundle of programs is not the same thing. Programmatic thinking has dominated the mainstream of safety for decades. When lagging indicators go beyond acceptable levels, new programs are added. The thinking seems to be if results are not acceptable, we must not be doing enough. So the more-is-better philosophy is adopted. This entire train of thought is almost the antithesis of strategy.

Leaders need to apply their strategic marketing approach to safety. It is critical this is done at the top level of the organization. If the creation of a safety strategy is delegated to safety professionals, there is no guarantee the safety strategy will not directly conflict with the business strategy. Some think this conflict is inevitable, that safety and production are natural enemies. But recent studies refute this view. The best companies in safety are regularly the best producers, and vice versa. A true safety strategy supports, rather than conflicts with, the business strategy. The goal is safe production, not safety versus production. The risks inherent in the production process are addressed and factored into both the business and safety strategies.

A successful marriage of business and safety strategies can also eliminate the conflict workers face when their production boss and their safety boss set different priorities for them. Workers who juggle conflicting priorities are seldom as productive as possible. Clarifying the relationship between these two high priorities into a single value with a well-defined strategy focuses worker attention and efforts toward what the organization really wants.

A strategic approach to safety almost always improves safety performance. Strategy is a plan to win. Programmatic safety is a plan to avoid failure. There is a profound difference between these two approaches. Winning is motivational. The pursuit of victory creates a level of effort and energy not attainable through avoidance goals. A recent study asserted that visible progress toward a goal was one of the highest motivators in business. Defining safety success and strategically working toward it is a giant step in the right direction for organizations that have historically set goals to fail less and constantly bombarded workers with failure metrics like recordable rates and lost-time statistics. Many organizations have never truly envisioned nor defined safety success other than as the lack of safety failure. Doing so tends to re-energize safety efforts and give them new meaning and direction.

While safety is one of the most prominent efforts with internal customers that benefit from strategy, it is not the only one. Many other departments and functions service internal customers whose needs might be better met and whose value to the organization might be improved with the right strategy. Exploring these opportunities within organizations is the theme of the new book, Inside Strategy: Value Creation From Within Your Organization. Applying this thinking to safety is an excellent way to begin a journey of organizational excellence that can potentially revolutionize value addition at each step of a process. The cost of doing so is absolutely minimal since the expertise already exists within the organizational or corporate structure. Plagiarism someone else's work is a crime. Stealing strategy from your own marketing department could be a stroke of genius.

Subscribe to our newsletter