Prominent leadership expert Jim Collins has studied and written about companies that were “OK” for a long period of time, and then surged to increase stock value and overall performance excellence.  Such companies went from “Good to Great.”

Can organizations that are not very good possibly go from “Bad to Good to even Great”?

Consider the following situation, a composite case study from the realm of EHS, realistic and sadly common in my experience:

A culture clings to “good enough”

An organization has a “fair” safety record on paper. Many banners declare that “Safety is Job 1” and “X days without an accident.” Truthfully, its safety systems and processes are not very good. The organization has one top-level safety engineer, who spends very little time in the field, and who in fact does not have a safety background per se. Some field operations have a safety committee; others do not. Existing committees are not given much corporate direction or resourcing, and are generally vague about their mission. Employees in some locations aren’t even sure if they are still on the safety committee — it rarely if ever meets. Some are even unsure whether there is a functioning safety committee at their shop.

Quarterly safety meetings usually center mainly or exclusively on safety training, OSHA-mandated or otherwise. A safety incentive program pays for no LTAs and no-more-than-X OSHA reportables. A near-miss program requires each employee to submit a specified number of near-misses in writing per quarter.

The measureable safety record of this hypothetical organization is “not bad” just now. Good enough seems to be good enough. After all, they are not having many accidents… right?

But the company is “driving around without a spare.”  Its safety process is, frankly, pretty bad.

Employees confidentially tell an inquisitive consultant that incidents sometimes go unreported, and other equally problematic transgressions occur, in order for employees to keep their safety bonus. Near-miss reporting has devolved into a numbers game, and little near-miss learning occurs.

An unfortunate catalyst for change

Suddenly, the site with the best safety record in the company suffers a catastrophic event. So how does this company with a “bad” safety process go to good, even great?

From my experience, while there may be no guaranteed, sure-fire formula, there are highly effective strategies. Such strategies for success include the following prescriptions:

1) Top management at the corporate and site levels must be visibly supportive of safe work — no exceptions. Indeed, leaders must “walk the talk.” Especially where mistrust of management has existed, and/or there have been flavor-of-the-month programs, there must be unequivocal, visible commitment from the top. In the false dichotomy of “safety or productivity,” if put to the test, the answer must be safety.

2) In union environments, union leaders (as well as rank-and-file employees) must actively partner with management in support of the safety process.

3) Whatever “programs” might be initiated, leadership must be disciplined to stay the course, work those programs, and reap their benefits. Psychologists will tell you it is easier to start a new program than to sustain it. It’s tempting to want to taste the next flavor of the month. 

4) Safety can’t be the responsibility of a safety engineer or a safety committee alone. It has to be a shared accountability on the part of all employees.

5) Through effective training, employees must know what to watch out for, and how to communicate with peers in constructive, professional ways, to identify and correct hazards, to stop unsafe acts, and redirect risky behavior to “best practice.”

6) Near misses that inevitably occur must be captured and analyzed.

7) Safety meetings (and other safety communications) must be effective activators of mindfulness and safe acts.

8) Working conditions and person factors (e.g., lack of training, fatigue, stress) must be the focus, as well as behavior.

9) A meaningful Vision of the Positive Safety Culture must be created and used to align internal efforts to keep all associates safe.

10) Energetic “champions” — managers or informal leaders — must be visible and inspire followership. They help create a broader coalition of safety leaders, eventually expanding to all employees. They are catalysts, sparkplugs, energizers of the effort. Everyone needs to be engaged, but go-to champions must drive the effort passionately and relentlessly to create and sustain that total engagement.

No overnight sensations

The sum total of these ten strategies is a Positive Safety Culture. Safety is a non-negotiable core value, embraced by all employees, and associates at all levels own responsibility for coaching and watching out for each other (as well as themselves) to ensure work is done safely.

The transition from bad to good to great is not easy or quick. Most change processes are challenging, even when the outcome is obviously highly desired. But I do insist that creating sub-systems that support each of these prescriptive strategies can make it work. Organizations with excellent safety processes, and results, embrace these strategies.