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Principle-to-Practice Safety Transformation

May 27, 2015
Trying to change a safety culture from bad to good is like trying to break a bad habit. No matter how much you know you need to end that habit, you can't escape the draw it has on your behavior.

New Year's resolutions are a perfect example of our desire to change bad habits. How many times have you pledged to lose weight, exercise more or just eat healthier? We have great intentions and we make devoted choices to do better, yet we revert back to our old ways.

The pursuit of an elite safety culture is just like the desire to change a bad habit. Even though organizations pledge to do better, they still experience the roller coaster ride of initial motivation and eventual failure.

In Charles Duhigg's book, "The Power of Habit," he states that, "One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people perform each day weren't actually decisions, but habits."

Habits have a huge influence on a safety culture. If this statement is true, we have to do more than make good decisions to change a culture. To transform a safety culture, we have to change habits that produce performance disablers.

So what does it mean to transform your safety culture?

The academic business definition of transformation is:

The Business Dictionary - Trans`for`ma´tion
In an organizational context, a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness. Unlike "turnaround" (which implies incremental progress on the same plane), transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.

The practical definition of safety transformation is: A safety transformation is a profound and radical change in safety performance and overall culture! A transformation alters the basic character of an organization in way that demonstrates leaders pursue the principle that no one will get hurt.

Safety Transformation Initiative: Phase One

A transformational safety leader can orchestrate radical change if he or she understands what will light a fire under someone's feet. Something has to trigger why you want to break bad habits and make a positive change with safety.

What moves people to action? The first phase of a safety transformation is to decide what will drive you to make change. There are three catalysts that spark a safety transformation:

  • A crisis can drive a transformation. In a safety context, that means someone was or could have been killed at work. Events that remind you how fragile life is will move you to action. As an OSHA compliance officer in the early 1990s, I investigated multiple fatalities. Each time I had to interview an employee that witnessed the event, I could see the emotion that accompanied the tragedy. In many instances, the tragedy was the origin of a radical change in the company.
  • Poor or average safety performance can generate a transformation. Organizations that are tired of mediocrity have the potential to experience radical change IF they have a management team with the desire to improve. The status quo does not rest well with high achievers and when safety performance stalls, leaders have the opportunity to jumpstart a change. But, to experience radical change, you can't be satisfied with average.
  • The desire to differentiate your organization can create an environment receptive to transformation. The desire to finish first will motivate you. If you want to distinguish your team as the best, change and improvement is ALWAYS necessary. Transformation happens when leaders match their verbal commitment to be the best with consistent action.

If you look hard enough, you can find one or more of these characteristics in your company. The next question is, "How do you make it a catalyst for transformation?" Philosophical commitment and theory alone will not generate a change. Leaders have to put their commitment into action and rally people around a cause.

How do you orchestrate the profound and radical transformation? You create the desire for change and you systematically focus on the fundamentals. If you keep it simple, your team will experience noticeable success.

Phase Two: The Process

Step 1: Choose your cause. You don't have to look hard to find a crisis. Performance measures have a tendency to plateau and who doesn't want to perform better than your competitors? Select your cause and begin the process. The cause represents the bad habits that you know you need to break.

Step 2: Identify people who will serve as the catalyst to drive change. A crisis, poor performance or differentiation will motivate the right people. The leaders you choose have to have influence and a passion for safety improvement. Your safety transformation steering team will hold each other accountable for eliminating the safety performance disablers – the bad habits. Transformation requires an enormous commitment and commitment does not exist without consistent, visible action from influential leaders! The team will have to get their hands dirty if they want to drive a profound and radical change and they have to possess the influence to make the transformation a reality in the corporate culture.

Step 3: Assemble your team and develop a strategy with clear objectives. The team has the motivation and now you have to develop the plan. Even though team members may have the cause to rally around, they may not know how to address the right issues. Evaluate all existing data, trends and perceptions related to safety. Gain an understanding of the real issues and align the group's priorities. Establish clarity in your mission.

This step separates average from elite. The desire to make a difference is common but a lack of focus will undermine a team's progress. Keep it simple and discipline your team to focus on what matters.

Step 4: Brainstorm your issues and identify your weaknesses. There are five critical principles to incident prevention: 1) Management commitment 2) Employee involvement 3) Worksite analysis 4) Hazard prevention and control 5) Training and communication. Companies have different practices for demonstrating these principles.

Put each principle on a flip chart and list current practices that demonstrate the principle. For example, worksite analysis is a universal injury prevention principle. A company may use different practices to execute the concept. Audit programs and investigation procedures are good examples of practices that enable a team to demonstrate the worksite analysis principle.

Once you have displayed your principles and practices on the flip charts, have each team member identify the five weakest practices from their perspective. The group will identify trends and prioritize what is most important. Place all of your attention and focus on the top three problems. They become the cause that you rally to improve. These are the safety performance disablers that stand in the way of your success.

Step 5: Assign a team member to take ownership of each cause. That owner will do everything in his or her power to investigate the root of the problem and will propose plans to improve the practice. The goal is to make a radical and profound difference in the way you do business in the top three areas you identify. The improvement effort should include robust communication strategies as well as rewards and recognition for success.

For transformation to take place, your organization has to see and feel the impact of the team's efforts. You have to be relentless and consistent over time to change habits.

Step 6: Meet consistently to discuss progress. You can use the meetings to hold people accountable and keep the process moving forward. Accountability is vital. You cannot let the progress stall.

The key words to the success of the safety transformation are "profound" and "radical." If the leaders of the safety transformation are ambivalent and they lack visible commitment, the long-term success will fail. Meet consistently to keep the fire burning!

Things Can Change

The idea that things never change is a lie. Every company has a crisis, plateaus in performance and/or has a desire to beat a competitor. The question is, "How are you going to respond?" You can replace old habits with new habits with a systematic process and the right reward. Transformation begins with your decision to pursue a new direction for your organization and a leader with the passion to excel can make a transformation happen.

With six simple steps, you have an opportunity to create an elite safety culture that workers appreciate. The remarkable fact of the matter is that the path to success is based on simple fundamentals and the discipline to achieve your goals.

The profound change at your fingertips benefits everyone! When you work for a company that has an elite safety culture, you feel a part of something special. Focus on what matters based on fundamental principles and practices. Give the right people the appropriate ownership of the problem and support their success.

Success is not random. You have to plan your victories strategically and enjoy the reward: fewer injuries!

David G. Lynn, CSP, is a consultant, professional speaker, published author and transformational leader with 22 years of experience. He has authored books such as "Principle to Practice" and "Strategic Safety Plan." Both books help readers develop execution plans that put VPP principles to practice. David utilizes these proven principles to help clients achieve their safety goals. For resources and assistance, you can go to

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