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Breaking Up with Lagging Indicators

Lagging indicators, I need a break. It’s not you; it’s me.

Many organizations have an unfortunate relationship with lagging indicators. Like a co-dependent relationship with a significant other that seems falsely comfortable – after all, you always have someone to go to the movies with – yet neither partner is actually happy.

Lagging indicators – metrics, key performance indicators, dashboards or whatever they may be referred to – provide a security blanket of sorts for organizational measurements. They can be trotted out at meetings of all shapes and sizes, spirited onto projectors, put into official-looking spreadsheets and recited as statistical fact to supposedly prove subject matter expertise.

However, while some managers live and breathe by their lagging indicators as the ultimate endgame of their cause and some organizations live and breathe by their lagging indicators as the ultimate measurements of their culture, both are missing opportunities – huge opportunities – in the process.

Everything in safety and accident prevention occurs in a consistent, recurring, cyclic chronology. Hazards must be identified, assessed and controlled. These defined hazard controls must then be communicated to all affected employees as performance expectations and they must be trained accordingly. If these expectations are not clear to them, how can we legitimately expect them to know how to work safely?

In many cases, very specific hazard controls are defined for us by OSHA and other national consensus standards. Failure to comply with these hazard control expectations can carry penalties even more than dreaded KPIs. With these hazard controls implemented and communicated, employee performances must be overseen to ensure and validate actual operational use of the controls. Only with these elements in place – hazard identification, assessment and control – can lagging indicators actually mean anything. Why then do so many organizations seek meaning in them without having done anything to create it?

No More Pontificating

Accidents must be prevented in real time. We must consistently identify, assess and control hazards before someone is injured or exposed to an illness. This is why complacency kills. If we take our eyes off the goal – accident prevention through safe behaviors and conditions – something is missed. The purpose of lagging indicators – to measure how many times we took our eyes off the goal and missed something – should only be used to determine what needs to be prevented and corrected.

The longer we deliberate and dwell on lagging indicators, the less time we’re spending actually identifying, assessing and controlling hazards. If lagging indicators are developed at the end of a month, we should have already determined what caused any variance in them and have already begun working toward continual improvement in hazard analyses, hazard controls, information programs and leading indicators.

To simply pontificate lagging indicators – or worse, to deliberate, argue and seek out semantic explanations to justify them – only cuts into the valuable time needed to prevent future injuries or illnesses. Furthermore, if lagging indicators are unavoidable as directed by management, time taken deliberating past lagging indicators only cuts into valuable time to prevent future injuries that will lower the next round of indicators. (Misguided inquiries of OSHA recordability without having ever read the OSHA recordkeeping guidelines, comes to mind.)

It may be time to take a break from lagging indicators. Injury reports, near-miss reports, observation participation and outcomes, inspection participation and outcomes all provide the critical data needed to continually prevent accidents, injuries and illnesses. This information can be used to take actions necessary for safety culture improvement without spending undue time pontificating lagging indicators, let alone arguing, debating, deliberating and trotting them out like a science fair project.

Let’s identify, assess and control hazards and stop wasting time trying to artificially or politically represent data points.

Cory Worden is the manager of system safety for Memorial Hermann Health System, the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in Texas. He is a certified safety and health manager, a CESB-accredited certification from the Institute for Safety and Health Management. Worden was recognized in 2014 as ISHM’s Safety Management Professional of the Year.

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