Impacting organizational culture is a long-term, never-ending endeavor. Many companies struggle with maintaining and sustaining cultural initiatives because their impact may not be felt for several years. Culture, as an organizational construct, is a subjective factor not directly measurable by any instrument, survey or metric. Yet, everyone is impacted by culture and can describe when it turns bad. 

What many describe as culture is, in reality, organizational “climate” that can be more radially influenced by various initiatives. The problem with safety initiatives designed to impact culture is that they are often programmatic, seen more as the “flavor-of-the month,” and are rarely sustainable. To impact the safety culture of an organization, it takes planning and change management. Thus, creating a resilient culture to withstand the ups and downs that even the best organization experiences requires change management, engagement, a return on investment, and a lesson in song writing. You’ll see the parallels.

Strategic “song writing”

Most songwriters have a specific strategy they use for creating, writing and producing successful albums. Likewise, many of the best “change agents” also have a process for taking their organization through new initiatives. Many authors have written volumes on techniques to ensure corporate initiatives are successful and become embedded in the culture (e.g., Kotter, Hiatt, Hayes). Although there are varying methodologies, change management requires the leaders to create momentum and prepare for change, then embrace change, and finally embed the change and sustain the initiative in the fabric of the organization. 

Unfortunately for safety, many new initiatives follow a serious incident, injury, or downturn in safety metrics. This “burning-platform” reaction by leaders gives employees a reactionary mentality and does not create sustainable change. 

In fact, it is difficult to gain any momentum for change when things are going well. Before implementing any new initiatives, safety professionals need to prepare the organization for the upcoming change. The change agent needs to elicit help from leadership to support the change and prepare the employees for how their work lives are going to change. 

Once implemented, the initiative needs to gain quick traction and demonstrate through small wins that that the company is on a successful path. These small wins signal to the employees that people are embracing the change and helps gather more engagement from the hold-outs. Once the organization gains momentum and embraces the change, the most difficult part of any new process takes place -- sustaining momentum and embedding the change in the fabric of the culture. 

Get the “band” back together 

Once the fabric of potential songs is stitched together, it’s time to get the band in the studio. Similarly, the change agent needs to get his “band” together to support the upcoming change. This is often done by creating a “Change Team” to help drive the new initiative. 

This team needs to be comprised of people from different levels in the organization. The team needs employee representatives reflective of the organization to identify potential road-blocks and one or two senior level leaders to help remove the identified barriers. This Change Team not only identifies key strategies for creating successful change, but their engagement leads the way for increasing participation. 

To accelerate culture change, it is essential for the leadership team to go beyond simply supporting the new initiative by becoming a vital part of the change. Once the leaders are engaged, we need to drive the engagement of the employees. To get true culture change, you cannot force employees to participate; you have to make the song catchy enough that they want to dance.

Marketing your new “record”

To reward the initial supporters of your new initiative and gain more buy-in from your CAVE people (Coworkers Against Virtually Everything), we need to create small wins and drive the value of the new process. Bands often need producers to help promote and sell their new albums. Change Agents may also need this type of assistance. This promotion may come from your in-house data analysts to help visualize the change so people can see and recognize improvements. Teams may also enlist the help of their marketing departments to create banners, signs, and other materials to sustain momentum and increase participation. 

Once the Change Team identifies metrics of success, the next job is to communicate this in a systematic way so it becomes part of the way we now look at how our organization is improving. Much like many other corporate initiatives, Change Agents all want to see their “song” hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart. 

Celebrate with a safety rap song

Several years ago, I consulted with a company that repaired oil rigs. At that time, they were experiencing many injuries and had a 60-percent turnover rate. This industry is notoriously difficult, dirty, and extremely risky. It was very hard keeping good workers employed. Safety Director Carlos came to me wanting two things: 1) have his employees keep all their fingers; and 2) improve their culture to attract better employees. 

The first thing we did was to talk with the senior level leaders and get their buy-in and begin the change process. The leaders were told that this culture change would take organizational stamina and could take five or more years to fully see change take place. The president and his team were more than willing to take the time and energy to improve their culture. Carlos then enlisted some leaders, informal leaders, and employees to take part in developing a safety process that could save lives. 

This Change Team was successful in getting people to participate, getting the leaders to demonstrate their commitment, and decreasing the number of injuries. This was accomplished though employee-led teams, with the leaders participating and providing the resources to make group initiatives successful. These teams were so successful that not only did their injury rate dramatically drop; their turnover rate did as well — falling from 80-percent turnover to less than 30 percent in little over 18 months. This dramatic change was something almost everyone could feel and actually inspired a group of Change Team members to write a safety rap song that was played at company events and even made it to the local radio stations. 

Culture change often take many years to achieve, but with the right people engaged, using change management techniques, and driving value, organizations may soon be hearing harmonious music. And, if you are in central California and hear a rap song called “Watch-yr-Hands Man!” you will now know the rest of the story.