Safety Decisions - January 2019
By: Charles J. Douros
Companies waste countless resources measuring the wrong things, not measuring at all, or failing to keep "the most important thing, the most important thing." So often, safety strategy falls short of defining what a healthy safety process looks like in precise, measurable terms that lead to action and enable a prescriptive approach to safety efforts in the workplace. Further, companies that set and reach a target of zero injuries can't claim success unless they know precisely what they did to achieve it and how to measure the performance it takes to sustain. Excellence is achieved when successful performance is continually repeated, unprompted, producing predictable results.
Check Your Prescription
Earlier this year, I made an appointment to visit my personal physician for the most benign of reasons: the annual check-up. While sitting in the exam room waiting for my doctor to enter, I wondered if this year's visit would begin and end like all those before - uneventfully. I imagined the appointment would begin with pleasantries, a litany of the usual questions, a cursory exam and subsequent discussion on the signs and symptoms of anything the doctor felt we should address. Over the years, I have come to expect the occasional round of tests or bloodwork to dig a little deeper and follow up on anything out of the ordinary before receiving his professional diagnosis and prescription for treatment. That's how it's supposed to go, but this year the annual check-up with the good doctor was quite different.
The door to my exam room opened slowly and the doctor entered quietly, his facial expression blank and neutral. The doctor was not making eye contact with me and there were no pleasantries or any of the usual questions, not even as much as a handshake. With an outstretched arm, he handed me a prescription for Cyclophosphamide, a medication given to treat patients with certain types of leukemia. Almost mechanically, he began to discuss the side effects I could expect from taking the medication. I was predictably stunned, sitting with mouth agape as I listened to the doctor describe how uncomfortable I was going to be for the next 6 months of treatment. It wasn't until the doctor finally made eye contact that he realized he had just made a terrible mistake. He meant to enter the adjoining exam room where his patient, newly diagnosed with leukemia, was waiting for his script. The doctor had simply entered the wrong room.
While this was an unfortunate mistake, the business lesson was not lost on me. It occurred to me that organizations can make the same mistake in their safety journey. Just as doctors don't prescribe treatment plans before conducting a careful and accurate diagnosis, the best companies make it a priority to assess the health of their culture before deciding what initiatives matter most and how to implement and ultimately measure them.
Don't Prescribe Treatment Before Diagnosis
Sadly, it is not uncommon for companies to prescribe safety performance measurements before first identifying "what healthy looks like" to their organization. Upon doing so, executives can find themselves measuring the wrong things for the wrong reasons without a clear understanding of why. Safety metrics and measurements should prompt specific action and direct efforts targeting transformational outcomes, the one or two things that will make the greatest difference to the organization. The right metrics align all levels of the organization to focus on keeping the most important thing, the most important thing. Effective metrics motivate leaders to stay the course and continue to do what works, and stop doing what doesn't. When your company's measurements prompt, direct, align and motivate the workforce to shape desired behaviors, better outcomes follow.
Without prescriptive data pointing to precisely what indicators will make the greatest difference in influencing the culture, a company could find itself acting on, and subsequently measuring, the wrong things by relying on anecdotes and opinions instead of fact. Just as the absence of illness does not always indicate the presence of health, the absence of injury does not necessarily indicate the presence of safety. There may be underlying or undetected factors influencing the wrong kinds of behavior, ultimately leading to risk or injury.
Our firm recently worked with the safety leadership team of an international conglomerate on a transformational safety project to improve focus among the supervisory level in the organization. An executive proudly showed a graph of how well they had eradicated footing-related incidents across the global organization and believed that to be transformational. While we agreed, the elimination of footing-related injury was important and could not be ignored, we pointed out that the Pareto analysis of the last 3-5 years of historical injury data revealed that footing injuries accounted for just five percent of their total incidents while proper tool use, including care and selection, accounted for 33 percent of their incidents. The data gave the executives confidence that it was a better business decision to shift focus to tool use, while maintaining existing efforts toward footing.
Excellent organizations achieve stellar safety performance by knowing precisely what they did, in behavioral terms, to get and repeat the desired results while maintaining a mindset that continuous improvement is always possible. The right safety performance measurements reveal which behaviorally-identified precautions will most effectively support desired, sustainable outcomes for a healthy safety culture.
Organizations with a mature safety culture are wise to consider their prior state and assess the relative health of their current state, including paying careful attention to signs and symptoms when something is not right with their safety process. Only then can they accurately diagnose the problem and prescribe treatment, much in the same way as a physician looks back into a patient's medical history while assessing their current behavioral choices, fitness, medical condition and lifestyle. Anything else would be malpractice.
Charles J. Douros is senior consultant for ProAct Safety. Organizations in every major industry engage Charles to guide them on their journey to achieve and sustain excellence in safety performance, organizational development and safety culture. As a prolific writer of organizational leadership and safety content, his publications appear in EHS Daily Advisor, Safety Decisions Magazine, BLR, EHS Today, ISHN, and Occupational Safety & Health Magazine, among others. Charles can be reached at 936.273.8700 or info@ProActSafety.com.