A serious movement is afoot to systematize the concept of “safety culture.” The International Labour Organization has put forward a definition of a “preventative safety and health culture,” and ISO is apparently discussing prospective prescriptive requirements for a “positive culture.”

On first blush, this seems reasonable enough. What’s the harm in identifying critical criteria of a safety culture and an “operational definition” ?

When I use a concept like “positive safety culture” I generally explain critical “markers” of the concept. This is a form of operational definition. In a June, 2015 ISHN article I offered my broad set of markers for the positive safety culture, important but not necessarily all-encompassing, as follows: 

• Effective safety communications, including prominently, the safety meeting. Are communications well-designed and effective in activating safety awareness and safe behavior?

• Near misses captured, discussed, and learned from. How do we deal with near misses?

• Safety coaching. Do we show a willingness to speak up and coach others as needed, including senior co-workers and bosses?

• Identification and quick correction of safety hazards. Once accomplished, is corrective action communicated to the workforce?

A note of caution

Once a concept is codified, and identified in the research and practice literatures as positive and desirable, “things spring up around it.” Take the venerable “total quality management” (TQM) movement which became so visible in the 1970s (and continues to be visible even today). TQM hit the research and practice literature like a hurricane. Pioneer thinkers urged strategies to take quality out of the sole province of a QC department and have every employee understand how to define quality (namely from the customer’s perspective) and how to eliminate error in their processes in order to consistently produce high quality products and services.

Along came the hyper-articulation of strategies to achieve a Total Quality culture (and associated “certification” processes and “awards”). Consulting firms established a cottage industry to help organizations qualify.

“Want TQM? Better Call Us!”

A plethora of TQM and TQM-related “programs” ensured. Some were embraced but not fully understood by organizations that wanted to keep up with early-adopter competitors. OK, so far, not necessarily so bad.

But in time turnkey, branded programs can and often do become an end in themselves, not the means to a (laudable) end. This is my primary concern about “programs.”

The numbers game

I have visited organizations that purchased branded, packaged TQM programs, and acolytes tell me with great pride how many teams they have working, and the number of suggestions that the teams rack up. Sometimes downstream measures really did relate to quality-enhancement outcomes. But in other cases — many of them — the measures were “activity” measures rather than “outcome” measures.

Having a Quality Steering Committee and 12 active Process Improvement Teams and 25 active Corrective Action Teams, with 75 quality suggestions being made, and 32 of them approved to be implemented, is all fine — as long as all the measured activity actually results in measureable improvements in quality.

Other codified programs have a history of being inspired by good ideas that sometimes devolve into “check the box” processes. Six Sigma, JIT, Process Reengineering, Lean, the Toyota Production System, among others. Many times these programs were not integrated into the culture of the host organization, and gradually became viewed as flavor-of-the-month, “just another program.”

What about Behavior Based Safety (BBS) programs?

One guiding principle for building a positive safety culture is to focus on behavior, not to the exclusion of other factors, but definitely highlighted as a primary contributing cause of most accidents. The central ideas of BBS are demonstrably powerful (as are the central ideas of TQM). But when Behavior Based Safety (BBS) becomes a “program,” things spring up around it, and there is the ever-present risk that the means become the end.

On several occasions I’ve done client work following (and in one unusual case to preceding) highly systematized BBS programs. In at least several of these cases the BBS “programs” eventually collapsed under their own weight. Despite the heavy investment of time and other resources, and the initial enthusiasm with which they were launched, they devolved into “count the number of observation teams and data sheets” exercises. In time, having yielded little if any benefit (certainly compared to the heavy cost), BBS lost support at every level of the organization, including critically, top leadership, and gradually faded into oblivion.

Results trump pencil-whipping

The goal of a positive safety culture is to keep the workplace and its inhabitants as safe as possible. Well-engineered safe work conditions and procedures, effective training in best practice behaviors, and a commitment to watching out for self and others are key strategic elements to support that goal. Merely having lots of meetings, teams, and data-collection activities which may or may not produce the desired results is not the goal. 

That’s the risk and the caution about systematizing positive safety culture. What is intended as a clarifying set of guiding principles to help organizations achieve an important outcome can become an exercise in pencil-whipping by those who adopt the “program,” and an invitation for “me too” joiners to get on the bandwagon (“They are doing a safety culture program, they got an award, so we need to do it too!”). 

Don’t avoid defining and offering guidelines for key concepts (such as safety culture). The problem is not in clarifying and proposing working definitions of these concepts. My counsel is to be mindful of how easily the tool can become the target. Results — not only activities — matter. Keep your eyes on the prize, not just on the process.