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The Navy Way: How to Ratchet Up Your Organization’s Safety Culture

Nov. 20, 2019
Implementing three key strategic decisions can help improve every measured safety process in your organization.

What is your focus? Is it safety? Operations? Can it be both? Most organizations demand absolute safety across the entire range of operations. That devolves into easy slogans: “Safety First,” “Safety is our Number One Priority,” or “No Safety, Know Pain.” If you shift your collective aimpoint toward precision in your daily operations, not only will you achieve and retain the level of safety we all desire, you will also improve the performance of your team.

A Navy aircraft squadron contains many moving parts. We often operate out of a fixed location, but can just as easily find ourselves working over vast expanses far from each other. Additionally, the requirements to safely operate and maintain aircraft increasingly are technical and the operating environment changes all the time. 
Within these challenges, squadrons succeed. We launch and recover aircraft, change large engines, repair electronic equipment, and fix extremely complicated fuel and hydraulic systems. All safely. 
In fact, we treat safety as the by-product of precision operations. Every day, small incremental improvements to every aspect of the operation enhance safety. The process we use to ensure this success can be collated into three key areas: 

1. Ensure every member of the team knows where we’re headed.
2. Operators hold key positions within the safety department.
3. Leaders stay engaged. 

These three key elements lead to continued precision operations—all while keeping a safety focus on everything we do.


Let’s start with alignment. Knowing the end goal, or alignment, in an organization should become your first priority. Without it, your team is a gaggle of arrows all with their own agendas. You need to back up and develop a cohesive strategy of where you are headed. 

Picture it as a lighthouse drawing everyone toward a common objective. Each member of the team may not follow the exact same path to get there, but you can be sure the path they do take is at least heading toward a common goal and is less likely to be in conflict with the path the rest of your team is taking. 

You could develop that strategy by yourself or with a handful of your closest supervisors. However, a better process brings in key leaders from every level of your organization and develops the strategy together. This open planning model will achieve faster buy-in from the team and garner more personal support because a larger leadership team helped define what that future picture (or lighthouse) actually looks like.


Next, become a “Rotating Organization.” Today’s EHS regulations really require a group of professionals in order to ensure compliance. EHS professionals typically spend a few short years in a specific operational aspect of an industry before moving into the EHS field. This provides a great base of operational knowledge, but as these professionals grow and advance to more senior positions within the EHS department, the distance between where they started and their position as EHS leaders can introduce potential conflict areas with the operations team. 

Without direct responsibility for operations, their operational knowledge can atrophy. So what drives what? Does safety drive operations, or is it the other way around? Too often, leaders and managers will preach safety, but when operational pressures mount, safety gets pushed aside. 

This typical and current path of developing EHS leaders means we create exceptional knowledge of the EHS regulations, but lose the sense of the challenges faced by operations. The opposite also is true. Operators with no direct EHS background often lose, or simply don’t care about the challenges of the EHS team. 

Navy squadrons battle this serious challenge by ensuring a regular rotation of operators in and out of the EHS department. This very conscious decision builds a more robust understanding of how safety integrates across the organization and aids tremendously with all operations as the operational processes are built from the ground up with EHS principles in place at the foundational level. This serves to greatly reduce the possibility that when faced with the competing priorities of safety and operations, neither loses as safety is simply a by-product of those operations, not an actual competing priority. 
Within your organization, rotate operational leaders into the EHS department at key leadership positions. Time on the EHS team should be sufficient to expand the operational leader’s knowledge of the EHS challenge and infuse the current EHS team with a renewed sense of those operational challenges. Every day should be used to look for ways to improve and combine EHS and operational principles together into a harmonious relationship.


Finally, target your focus as a leader. Too often a leader’s focus aims at the current fires of the day. This reactionary approach keeps an organization mired in the average. Every day, fires do certainly exist that require a leader’s time, but it is imperative to get out in front of the fires to make an impact to the daily operation. So handle the fires efficiently, and then begin to focus on refining every part of your operation into a precision operation. 

Through targeted leadership, you will commit the precious resources of time, energy and money to the proper areas within your organization. Leaders at every level need to move well beyond catchy slogans at the beginning of the work shift, and focus on where the operation is failing to be precise. Precision operations lead to predictable results. 

As leaders in a Navy squadron, every day presented areas that needed refinement. We constantly looked at our processes for that incremental improvement. And since we had often spent time within the EHS department, we looked at every process with an eye toward incorporating those EHS principles and regulations. The result became a learning organization that purposely sought to get better with each hour, each minute, each second of time. 

We were never satisfied with our current success. We wanted to improve everywhere, always. We debriefed everything. The result was a phenomenal safety record, especially considering the nature of our operations—flying high-performance aircraft all over the world, regardless of weather, and often from a small ship or foreign airfield that we have never been to before. 

Begin to be specific about your leadership focus. Distance yourself from simply saying “be safe out there,” and apply your expertise to continuous improvement of every process with an eye for precision.
Implementing these three key strategic decisions will drive your organization to a direct improvement of every measured parameter along the way. This effort takes time and focus, but through a dedicated decision to apply your precious resources differently, you will see a change to your safety culture. You will become a learning organization. You will become more precise in your operation and a more high-performing team. Mission accomplishment by luck is not success. You want to know that success is deliberate.... and no slogan can you get there.

Shawn Grenier is an authority on organizational safety and performance for The Corps Group (, a company dedicated to building high-performing teams. As a Naval Aviator for over 25 years, he has over 400 arrested landings and 3,300 hours in tactical fighters. After leaving the US Navy, he supported the offshore oil and gas industry evaluating and training precision teams, and today is a pilot for a major airline as well as leading corporations in development of their strategic goals.

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