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Data Alone is Not Enough

Aug. 3, 2020
Establishing a feedback loop is critical for companies that are collecting data and want to utilize that data to guide safety-focused process improvements.

The Webster definition for the word “data” is as follows: factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation. Often, we are so focused on accumulating the "factual information", that we forget about the second half of the definition, "for reasoning, discussion or calculation". Ultimately, the purpose of collecting the data is to give us an understanding of what is happening in our organization in order to act and start a continuous improvement process.

For years safety professionals around the world have been chasing the ever-elusive data. Data as it pertains to the environmental, health and safety (EHS) industry has been accumulated in all forms including injury incidents, near misses, safety observations, vehicle collisions, environmental incidents, audit outcomes and that is only a sample. However, much of the time our focus is placed on the accumulation of data and not the communication of that data for the benefit of safety improvement. For the data that we collect to positively impact our safety program and lead us down the path to a safety culture, we need to ensure we are setting up a data feedback loop that will promote action.

Establishing a feedback loop is critical for companies that are collecting data and want to utilize that data to guide safety-focused process improvements. Put simply, creating a feedback loop entails creating a process in which our outputs (data), can be used as inputs (actions for improvement) in our safety program. When we have a functional feedback loop, we can start to utilize the second half of the data definition and begin a discussion around trends and findings with our teams to drive action and improvement. The absence of a feedback loop ends with the data from an observation, near miss or incident being entered into our management system where that information is listed but not utilized. Our data collection process might be world-class, but if we are not creating a feedback loop the collection process may be just that, a collection process. An effective feedback loop moves data collection to the first step in a data review process which is followed by analyzing our data, communicating findings to our teams, and instituting corrective actions. While formulating a feedback loop there are three critical areas to focus on: frontline involvement, timeliness, and stripping down the data.

Frontline Involvement

Typically, when we think of who gets value out of dashboards, reports and data in general, the people who come to mind are higher-level managers and executives. As a result, many times it is the higher-level folks who receive summarized information about injury rates, injury trends, the number of near misses submitted, the number of safety observations made and so no. Having a top management team that is involved and engaged in environmental, health and safety is extremely important. Furthermore, providing top management a snapshot into what is happening on the production floor is paramount for buy in and a continued focus on safety. However, the group of individuals that often gets left out of the data review process are the frontline supervisors and employees. This is problematic.

Frontline workers have the most knowledge of how the job gets done. When they are included in the data review process, they may see opportunities for safety improvements that others who are not as familiar with the work processes might miss. Additionally, regarding observations and near miss data, frontline workers are often the individuals who are reporting the unsafe or safe conditions and acts. Involving frontline workers in the feedback loop lets them know that their input is being utilized and acted on to improve current conditions or processes. This reinforces the value of the employees input and promotes future reporting. An impactful feedback loop ensures that the frontline workers are receiving the outputs of data collection so they can provide ideas for feasible corrective actions and better understand where there are areas of increased risk.

Timeliness

The frequency at which data is looked can hinder or promote action in our feedback loop. As an example, let’s look at football quarterbacks (if you are not a sports fan, bear with me). A quarterback in the NFL throws an interception to end a potential touchdown drive. When he comes off the field he is immediately interacting with the coaching staff and utilizing available technology to get feedback on what went wrong and how he can change next time to avoid the negative outcome. Would his review hold the same weight if he waited until the end of the game to review what activities and decisions contributed to the interception.  Even if he comes up with the same corrective actions, he is further removed from the time when those actions would have been most impactful. On top of that, he now has other activities that are taking priority. Additionally, even though he can generally apply the corrective actions in another game, there are small details that will have changed which may affect the efficacy of those actions. The point being that the closer our discussions and reviews of data are to the time the data was collected, the more impactful the feedback loop and the better opportunity to create meaningful action.

Many data points in safety are focused on annual rates, month over month or year over year comparisons. Summarized historical information can be very useful for general insights. However, in order to turn our data outputs into actionable inputs, frequent review of new data is required. A month end review of all the safety incidents and observations is okay, but a weekly review would be better, or most impactful, a daily review of incidents and observations from the previous day. The timelier the review, the more beneficial the insights. When our reviews are timely many of the same conditions exist and it is easier for employees to see the changes that need to be made, promoting action in the feedback loop.

Strip the Data Down

Finally, what information should we be presenting to employees in our feedback loop. As mentioned above, often safety data are rolled up into summarized rates, percentages and trends. Again, there is a time and a place or all types of data. Summarized data is great for monthly reports, trending overtime, corporate reviews, and benchmarking. However, it is important to make the most actionable information available to employees in the feedback loop. Injury rates and other summarized data will not allow employees to act because there are too many factors going into the summarized data. Is the month over month injury rate going up due to PPE issues, system defects, a lack of observations, or training deficiencies? It is hard to tell. To promote action, we need to give employees access to the most stripped-down data. Specific observations or incident details that will allow employees to understand exactly what is at issue and from there we can have discussions to drive improvements.

Collecting data is excellent. However, it is not the magic bullet. In order to promote data-driven decision making we need to create an effective feedback loop that is focused on turning our data outputs into corrective action inputs to move our safety program forward. Effective feedback loops should focus on communicating data findings to the frontline workers, communicating information in a timely manner and stripping the data down to supply employees with the most actionable information.

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