An interview with Dr. Tom Krause

September 14, 2006
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The professional safety landscape is always shifting, in terms of hot-button issues. Many of you have seen the years of heavy OSHA standards-setting in the 1970s and ’80s, the boom in behavior-based safety in the 1990s, and now the focus on organizational leadership and culture.

Dr. Tom Krause’s 2005 book, Leading with Safety, is representative of this new landscape. Evolving front-burner safety topics were also evident at the most recent users conference of Behavioral Science Technology Inc., of which Dr. Krause is co-founder and chairman of the board. More than 3,000 BST users attended the conference earlier this year in Dallas.

We interviewed Dr. Krause for his take on why leadership and culture are hot safety topics, as well as other organizational issues and changes facing safety professionals.

The new emphasis on leadership

Why are we hearing so much in safety circles about leadership in 2006? Safety professionals have always known that “safety starts at the top.”

Safety pros have known the importance of senior leadership. They know senior leaders are needed to support safety. What is new is to operationalize senior leadership in behavioral terms.

This is critically important. As CEO, I can say, “I’m behind safety. I support safety.” But at the same time I can still send the wrong message about safety to the organization.

How?

Say I’m the CEO of a multinational corporation. In one of our work camps in an emerging nation a tree falls on a tent causing a fatality to an employee. Now keep in mind in this corporation on-the-job fatalities will affect senior leadership’s compensation. But based strictly on OSHA rules, leadership does not have to take this incident on as a job-related fatality. So they don’t. What message does that send? How sensitive are leaders in this case to the message they are sending?

Or let’s take small examples of sending the wrong message about safety that occur in executive life every day. I’ve coached CEOs, spent time in their offices, and I’d say in 30 percent of the email exchanges of executives there are opportunities to emphasize a safety message. For example, say a CEO receives an email from his COO reporting that X division is suffering financial setbacks, and budget cuts are being reviewed. The CEO is asked if he wants to review the cuts himself. He tells the COO to take care of it.

The better answer is for the CEO to ask the COO, “Do these cuts have a safety impact?” Better still is for the CEO to answer, “I want to see the proposed cuts myself to see if there are any safety impacts.”

In working with safety leaders across many organizations, we (Behavioral Science Technology - BST) have identified a set of best practices that effective safety leaders engage in that create a strong organizational culture and safety climate. I’ve presented these in workshops and in my book, Leading with Safety.

We developed these best practices in 2002 based on our experience with more than 1,700 projects. We looked at what distinguishes effective safety leadership from mediocre leadership. We also reviewed relevant research. As a result, we operationalized executive safety leadership behavior into seven categories: vision, credibility, action orientation, collaboration, communication, recognition and feedback, and accountability. Each category contains a subset of six to ten behaviors.

Senior executives want to know what they can do for safety. “Tell me what you want me to do,” they will say. But many don’t know how to act on their support. They might not know what a vision for safety is, so they will miss opportunities. A leader might visit a plant and articulate his or her support for safety, but that same leader at a corporate board meeting does not talk about his or her vision of safety. The organization’s people are not moved. So operationalizing these seven best practices behaviors is very important.

But is management just waking up now, in 2006, to the fact they must take the lead with safety?

I think something else that is occurring is a natural pendulum swing back from Deming and the emphasis on the hourly employee. Now what Deming emphasized was very important. But many organizations forgot about the effect that supervisors and plant managers have on performance, and in a way they went around supervisors straight to employee engagement. Many organizations became confused. You see, you can get both employees and supervisors and managers engaged. So gradually now the emphasis is swinging back to the effect of leadership.

Activating management support

What can safety professionals do to activate senior manager behaviors that support and improve safety?

One tool to activate senior managers is to give them feedback on how they perform in the various best practices categories by using a 360-degree feedback instrument. Give them feedback on how employees perceive them in terms of safety, what they do for safety. It can open eyes. We can also show executives how their scores, in terms of employee perceptions, compare to a large database of perceptions of executive safety best practices.

How do you handle the executive who is not open to receiving this type of feedback?

You’re never going to get 100-percent cooperation; you’re never going to get everybody on board. But you can get enough people to be receptive to feedback to achieve your objectives. I would say, in general, two-thirds of people will be receptive to feedback. One-third you will really be able to work with, one-third will be tough, and one-third will be in the middle in terms of being on board.

Who are you referring to here when you say “people in general”?

We define leaders as anyone with influence on safety. It’s union leadership. It is pivotal employees. It is supervisors and managers.

Today’s emphasis on culture

It seems like everyone in safety wants to talk about or write about or lecture on safety cultures these days. You have written on the difference between safety culture and safety climate. Can you explain?

An organization’s culture is not primarily about safety. It’s “how we do things in general.” Unstated assumptions that are deeply embedded in the organization.

The climate of an organization is more focused on something specific, such as safety or quality or productivity. Climate describes how an organization pays attention to a particular area of functionality.

Culture changes slowly. Climate changes rapidly. A new CEO, a fatality, a financial setback can affect climate quickly. A fatality might occur and the safety climate gets immediately stronger. But over time it goes back to the way it was. The unstated assumption of the culture is that safety is important only at certain times. That assumption will be much harder to change.

Defining accountability

How do you define a safety accountability system?
Here is an example of accountability: An employee or supervisor is told that it is up to them to see that safety training is done on a particular schedule, and they are told there are consequences if the training is not done on schedule. There might also be consequences if the training is not done according to certain quality or frequency standards.

But what happens is that many organizations are lax about consequences. They don’t pay attention to the consequences. So they let things go by.

In comparison, an accountable leader will say, “This can’t be the case, that training is not done as planned. It is not acceptable for an 18-year-old to not be trained in forklift safety. I’ll shut down this facility unless I am assured that this training is a given.”

Accountability is one of the seven best practices of leadership behavior in the BST system, and it is last in the sequence. When we conduct a 360-degree review of a company’s leader, a common profile is that the leader does not have a vision for safety, does not have credibility, is not a collaborator and is not action-oriented toward safety. But that leader is seen as someone who says, “I will hold you accountable.” If you hold people accountable but don’t do the other best practices, you will not get the performance you want.

The business case for safety

At the recent BST users conference in Dallas, there was discussion on the “link between safety and productivity.” Do you believe the much-discussed business case for safety even exists? Why has it been so elusive to prove for a hundred years?

It is really difficult to conduct the kind of research needed to prove the business case for safety. There are so many variables involved that are difficult to hold constant across comparisons of different companies. You have differences in workforce demographics, technology, and culture in every workplace.

Safety is a tough thing to measure aside from OSHA incidence and frequency rates. And they are not a perfect measure. Rates accumulate over time and often come from small population samples. They often tell you nothing. Say you have two sites of 100 people, both with an incidence rate of three. One is making money and one is not. The OSHA rates won’t tell you what is functioning well for safety in the organizations, or what is not.

I’m not sure we need to prove the business case for safety now. I have told executives and organizations that leaders who are good at safety are good at everything else in terms of leadership, and everyone in the room will nod their heads in agreement. Everyone knows this; people are already thinking this way.

Why do many executives seem to intuitively accept and agree with what you’re saying?

They understand that it’s a matter of culture. Culture produces good safety. If you have an organization that scores high on perceptions of justice or fairness, high on credibility, high on teamwork, high on upward communication, the organization will be good at safety and obviously productivity. Organizations functioning effectively will have these attributes across the board. And you can use safety to build these attributes. That’s what Paul O’Neill did as CEO of Alcoa. He leveraged safety to build the cultural attributes he wanted for his organization overall.

Culture barriers

Are the barriers that get in the way of building effective safety cultures any different in 2006? The traditional barriers have been things like management apathy, no resources, competing priorities, fear and mistrust in labor relations, resistance to change.

The most fundamental barrier in the last several years is the amount of negative change many organizations are undergoing overall. These can be changes in priorities to stay in business, using one person on a task in place of two or three, having two or three supervisors on a shift or in a department instead of, say, eight. It could be bringing in a new CEO, acquiring another company, or divesting a division. It is difficult to build a culture in this environment.

When knowledge drifts

At the BST users conference there was talk about “knowledge drift.” Is this “drift” tied to the changes you just described? What is knowledge drift, and what can safety professionals do to prevent it?

An example of knowledge drift is when we teach an organization to apply feedback. A feedback-rich environment is critically important to organizational culture. But what can happen is over time, that knowledge about feedback drifts into the organization doing things that are not good feedback practices. So perhaps the organization decides to do an incentive program. Now incentives for avoiding injuries is not the type of feedback we taught. This is a failure to understand the core principles.

When you perform a behavior, the environment needs to get back to you on whether your behavior was effective or not. This can easily drift to setting up a contest with incentives. It happens when safety application tools such as feedback are taught without adequate depth. And when people don’t listen. The result: principles are not understood.

Safety professionals might keep an eye out for this type of drift in their safety meetings. Is the quality of the meetings drifting? Is employee engagement occurring in these meetings, or is it drifting off? You’d be surprised how often this drift happens.

Professional interest in leadership

There was a good deal of discussion at your users conference about safety professionals assuming leadership roles. Hasn’t leadership always been part of a safety pro’s job description? Hasn’t leadership always been a personal goal of professionals?

I think this shift to the emphasis on leadership is part of a pendulum swing. The attention of safety professionals always swings across a broad landscape of topics. Hopefully the current emphasis on leadership won’t become a fad and go the way of all fads.

You see, at one point everything in safety, and other organizational functions, was top-down corporate driven. Programs were jammed down throats, so to speak. Then Deming came along and said it’s no surprise these programs are failing, you’ve got to get employees involved. Then things like quality and productivity improved. But often this was done at the price of going around supervisors and leaving them out of it.

What you really want is integration. Integration was a key word coming from executives, union leaders, and other safety leaders at our users conference. That’s the task in front of us: integrate the involvement of the CEO, supervisors, and hourly employees.

Coaching

In your acknowledgments for Leading with Safety you thank your friend and coach Phil Fedewa for “thoughtful insights on how to get things done… while maintaining order and balance across the wider range of personal objectives.” Should every safety professional have his or her own coach?

If the world was perfect and there were no resource restraints, everyone would have a coach. Coaching is wonderful. No one is perfect and everyone can benefit enormously by having someone bring perspective to their work, what they’re trying to accomplish. Often this role is assumed by one’s spouse. But a spouse’s perspective might be biased, too.

So if a safety professional is looking for a potential, informal coach, what should he or she be looking for in terms of characteristics?

The person has to have knowledge of what you are doing to provide perspective on you. And the coach’s primary perspective is on you, not the organization. The coach is interested in your well-being.

It’s not that a coach doesn’t care about the organization. But a coach helps you through decisions and dilemmas. Say you are faced with hiring one of two people. It’s a tough decision. A coach can help by being prudent, in the classic sense of the word “prudent.” They separate their own interests to see the big picture. That’s being prudent. A prudent person will see how your actions fit in the big picture. They have the objectivity to tell you things are never as good, or as bad, as they might seem.

OSHA’s relevance

There is not a single reference to OSHA in the index for Leading with Safety. Is OSHA irrelevant to achieving the safety excellence you discuss in the book? Is OSHA at all relevant to a safety culture?

OSHA is not irrelevant. OSHA is foundational instead. OSHA’s existence in large fact lays the foundation to the whole thing safety professionals are trying to do. The most important event in the last 50 years in industrial safety is the creation of OSHA. Through its recordkeeping requirements, OSHA established a metric for industrial safety. Healthcare, for example, does not have that single metric, and patient safety would benefit greatly if it did.

From behaviors to exposures

Leading with Safety seems to represent a shift in focus from behaviors to exposures. Is the behavioral process too narrow to achieve broad cultural goals?

Behavior-based safety is not the optimal process to achieve cultural improvement. It got too popular too fast, with too many projects done shabbily. BBS got muddy, confused, with too much of an emphasis on the behavior of hourly employees.

Behind the concept of exposure to hazards is the fact that behavioral observations will miss certain exposure risks. A person observing in a BBS process would not have seen that a gauge was set wrong, and that setting caused an explosion that killed three people. The gauge would not have been observed.

We have switched our emphasis at BST from the word “behavior” to the concept of what we call the “working interface.” The word “behavior” is tainted in industry; it sounds like blame. You can explain and explain what you mean by behavior and it’s still heard as blame. The “working interface” encompasses much more. It is where employee exposure interacts with system factors such as equipment, environmental conditions, and organizational actions. Many organizations fail to appreciate the relationship between the quality of their safety systems, the broader systems than enable safety, and what occurs in the working interface.

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