Safety: Between a 'Roc' and a Hard Place

How to handle the call for change and get around the rocks placed in your way.

It happens every year: It’s Oct. 2 (Happy Birthday, Larry!), and the CEO – having just returned from the annual board of directors’ “Performance Improvement Strategy Session” (interesting acronym) – calls a staff meeting.

At the appointed time, all managers convene in the conference room and listen to the trip report, which starts with one of two very predictable introductions:

“Ladies and gentleman, the board is ‘very pleased’ with our 9-month results. Projections indicate that we’ll make our year-end numbers. They applaud all of you for your efforts. However, in view of X (you fill in this blank as the variables are many), they’ve made it perfectly clear that our results must improve. We’ve got to ratchet things up through the fourth quarter. Next year, they expect a 10 percent improvement across the board … with no budget increase over this year’s plan!”

Or, worse…

“Ladies and gentlemen, the board is ‘very disappointed’ with our 9-month results. Projections indicate that we will not make our year-end numbers. They’ve made it perfectly clear that our performance must improve. We’ve got to ratchet things up through the fourth quarter. Next year they expect a 10 percent improvement across the board with no budget increase over this year’s plan!”

S/he continues: “I want all of you to assess your operations, review your variance reports and have your performance improvement plans on my desk by Monday morning. I know you’re all up to the challenge. Dismissed!”

You return to your cube and ponder: Wadda we gonna do now?! More training, more audits, more meetings, more discipline, more safety awareness campaigns ... more of what hasn’t worked in the past? And by Monday (there goes the weekend), we need a new strategy!

Excellence is All About Change

When called upon to facilitate strategic planning in organizations seeking to attain safety excellence, I often begin the first management session by asking the two core questions of excellence. (Many sessions, unfortunately, end here as well.)

The first question is: “How many here today want to be a safety excellence organization?” In response, most arms come flying out of their sockets! I tactfully then present the second question:

“How many here today are willing to do safety excellence?” Suddenly, 90 percent or more of the audience remember their very first golf lesson (keep your head down, elbow glued to the hip).

I then pass on two insights on organizational performance from Peter Drucker. The first is: “The only things that evolve in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance,” followed by: “Everything degenerates into work.” The bottom line is, change (for the better) doesn’t just happen. Change is caused. Change is work (W – f X d)!

Brian Tracy, author of The Creative Manager, says that between you and your ultimate goal lies a rock, a significant impediment that prevents you from achieving your objective. To be successful, you must find a way over, under, around or through your rock. Better yet, blow it up!

In my work with companies striving to improve performance, I’ve learned that the greatest impediment to achieving safety excellence is an inability (or unwillingness) to create sustainable organizational change. By sustainable, I don’t mean the ordinary run-of-the-mill type of change (a little off the top), but rather, change of the frame-bending nature I call a ROC – Radical Organizational Change.

To truly impact organizational performance, we need to change what’s inside the boxes of an organization: the basic beliefs, prevailing assumptions and core values of the organization; in other words, its culture.

“Much of American management doesn’t seem willing or equipped to address directly what is often the real core of operational problems … mindset,” observes James Champy, author of Re-Engineering Management. Jack Stack, author of The Great Game of Business, cautions, “The practice of management I’ve discovered is filled with myths that are guaranteed to screw up any factory or company. The real secret of an effective manager is to learn how to ignore them.”

Traditional Wiz-Dumb

Both these individuals identify what I’ve come to call conventional “wiz-dumbs,” (wrong-headed thinking that impedes progress in the right direction). In safety, traditional wiz-dumb proliferates, has gone unchallenged and continues to impede both efforts and results. Here are some of the more prominent wiz-dumbs and myth-conceptions inhibiting performance. (Note: As you read this list, think of the predominant manager mindset in your organization. How would your managers respond to these statements: True or False? See answers at end of the article.)

True or False:

  • The primary purpose of a safety program is to prevent accidents.
  • More than 90 percent of all accidents are caused by unsafe employee acts.
  • The goal of safety excellence organizations is zero injuries.
  • Accidents are unplanned, unforeseen, fortuitous events.
  • Management commitment is critical to peak safety performance.
  • A focus on regulatory compliance minimizes loss and cost.
  • Repetitive at-risk behaviors indicate a need for safety training.
  • Disciplinary actions are necessary to increase safe work practices.

If managers in your company believe each of these to be true, you have an immediate need to “ROC” your organization. These counter-productive beliefs and performance impeding mindsets must be challenged and changed, if anything other than mediocrity is your desired objective.

Let's ROC!

Here are six good reasons for challenging traditional thinking in your organization:

1. Safety makes solid financial sense. According to Peter Drucker, “The first duty of a business is to survive, and the guiding principle of business economics is not the maximization of profit, it is the avoidance of loss.” A manager’s primary duty is not production (output), it is productivity (managing both inputs and outputs). A manager's job is to focus on the middle lines (costs, expenses and LOSS – lack of safety strategy), because that’s what they can impact, and that’s how they create the bottom line (margin). You measure below the line, but you manage above the line. It’s all about minimizing loss, by safeguarding and optimizing human capital.

2. The numbers aren’t good. In spite of the number of reported workers’ compensation claims trending downward (40 percent over the last 10 years), the more important numbers – those with dollar signs – continue to degenerate rapidly.

3. What we’re doing isn’t effective. A media poll of safety practitioners asking about the effectiveness of their organization’s current safety efforts revealed: 83 percent are reactive, 83 percent are fire fighting, 79 percent are quick fixes, 79 percent are lip service, 74 percent have committees that are ineffective and 70 percent are isolated.

4. National Safety Council researchers (Planek and Fearn, Professional Safety, October 1993) examining and ranking effectiveness of safety activities identified the following as least effective (it has an uncanny resemblance to what many organizations put on the top of theirs!): employee contests, safety records, injury records, enforcing resolutions, incentives, off-the-job programs, on-site health care, comparing records, investigating accidents and complying with standards.

5. Human resource executives of the Corporate Leadership Council Advisory Board, when asked what activities they felt could be out-sourced, responded: “Safety. No perceived value added.”

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, in a Fast Company magazine interview, contends that, “Success doesn’t require change agents; success demands change insurgents.” Organizations only can change the safety results they achieve, by changing what and how they do safety.

I propose this as the success equation: Success = CEO (with C = culture, E = elements and O = organization).

In an organization there are three types of change initiatives, each of which addresses a different target and, correspondingly, has an increasingly greater impact on operational performance. These are:

Level I: Transitional (minor) Change: These are initiatives that focus on changing working conditions and behaviors, aka safety programs.

Level II: Transactional (moderate) Change: Initiatives that focus on changing organization (structure and roles), process (systems) and management (practices), aka safety management.

Level III: Transformational (major) Change: Initiatives that focus on changing organizational culture (values) and executive (actions), aka safety leadership.

To ROC (radical organizational change) an organization into excellence, leaders must target Level II and Level III change, as these harbor the headwater sources of loss in an organization.

Loss-producing behavior is driven by – and consequently best-controlled by – addressing the top four strategies on the safety excellence continuum: culture (values), leadership (actions), organization (structure) and process (management systems and practices).

The ROC Tests

As the hardness of a gemstone can be tested on a scale of 1 to 10, so too can the potential impact of a safety improvement initiative be determined on an ROC impact scale of 1 to 7. Initiatives designed to ROC an organization to safety excellence performance can be gauged against these seven critical characteristics:

  1. Targets change in one of the four advanced strategies of excellence (culture, leadership, organization and process).
  2. Is non-traditional in concept, not S.O.S.S. (same old safety s __!)
  3. Emotionally engages and unifies an organization and builds collaboration.
  4. Challenges the status quo by recognizing that current success is the greatest impediment to future success.
  5. Forces real issues onto the table, the sacred cows and 500 lb. gorillas!
  6. At first blush appears a little off the wall and, upon closer examination, is!
  7. Passes the organizational “eye test.” When proposed, it evokes these visible reactions: Employees beam because they see it’s right; managers wince because they see it’s work (mostly for them); executives furl because they see themselves in the crosshairs.

(Note: If you ever develop a ROC that scores 7 on this scale, you most likely are on to something that will “nuke” the organization!)

No Quick Fixes, but…

There is no such thing as a quick fix in business or safety. However, there is a very real potential for rapid returns when the same amount of time, energy and resources are shifted from traditional (low-impact) strategies to the high-impact advanced strategies of excellence.

ROCing an organization to excellence is all about refocusing the organization from being safety efficient – doing things right via safety programs – to being safety effective – doing the right things via safety management and safety leadership.

ROCs are practical and tactical approaches to help safety champions transform how safety is done by promoting new thinking, encouraging different actions and enabling better performance and outcomes. Practitioners who adopt an ROC mindset become change insurgents, taking those overt and covert actions requisite to creating a safety excellence organization.

In the words of Secretary Reich: “Change doesn’t happen top down; change happens from wherever you are.” In the battle against accidents, injury, loss and costs, you must target the advanced organizational strategies of excellence and ROC your organization.”

(Answers to traditional wiz-dumb quiz: All false!)

Larry L. Hansen, CSP, ARM, free radical, is principal of L2H Speaking of Safety Inc., a safety excellence facilitation company. He is author of the “Architecture of Safety Excellence,” a work identifying the advanced strategies of excellence, and of ROC Your Organization: Fifty-two Ways to Instigate Radical Organizational Change for Safety Excellence and A Universal Model for Safety ‘X’-cellence. He can be reached at (315) 383-3801, via email at [email protected] and online at

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