For over 30 years, safety professionals have been searching for reliable leading indicators, and they have been told that simply looking at lagging indicators is equal to driving forward only looking in the rear-view mirror — you can’t possibly see what’s coming around the next corner. But is it possible that in 30 years no one has found any? Or is it possible that there aren’t any reliable leading indicators?        

As expert panels around the world got together (in the Middle East, North America, Asia and Europe) to discuss what they think are reliable leading indicators, an unexpected result surfaced during the discussions. As it turns out, nobody had an example of a company that made a significant change or pivot based on a leading indicator. We all know of many pivots that were the result of a past disaster (Exxon, NASA, etc…), and all the panelists had examples of leading indicators that they like, but proactive changes made because of a leading indicator were very hard to come by. Nevertheless, the conversations still proved to be fruitful, and the panelists’ insight was as valuable as ever. 

Variety of opinions

 Larry Wilson, CEO of SafeStart International, begins each session the same, by asking the panelists the ostensibly simple question: “which leading indicators do you think are the most reliable?” He lists the usual suspects to get everyone listening familiar with the common ones: near-miss reports, hazard IDs, observations, leadership communications, walk-arounds, audits, inspections, employee suggestions, risk assessments, pre-shift briefings, or (if they’ve taken SafeStart) Anticipating Error and Rate Your State conversations. There is a fair amount of overlap as well as diversity in the answers.

 The panelists more familiar with process safety, like Anthony Panapinto (Senior Director HSE, Procter & Gamble) from the NA panel, cite pre-shift briefings, condition audits, or near-miss reports. “All of these play a part in giving a total picture and keeping people focused on risk”, he says, “but I don’t think there is a single tool we have found.” Others, like David Bianco (Global SafeStart Program Manager, Epiroch) explain that they think direct observation “where the rubber meets the road,” and conversations with the people are the most important. Wilson nods along, “being able to get the perspective and going out and talking with the employees would certainly be the most reliable leading indicator, but you need to have strong and reliable communication lines.

To help strengthen communication, Dr. Praveena Dorathi (Head HSSE, JLL India) from the India panel explains an initiative taken at JLL. “We created an app called ‘Don’t Walk By,’” she says, “if you see any unsafe act or condition you take a picture or video and it gets escalated immediately.” She further explains that the company uses an internal reviewing system that looks at how many entries are coming in. If there is a significant percentage deviation or recurrence, then they go and review or modify certain steps in their processes.  

 However, as Dr. Waddah Ghanem (Senior Director, Fellow Board Directors Institute GCC) mentions in the Middle East Expert Panel, what is/isn’t a leading indicator depends on the organization or the industry. For example, near-misses are a popular leading indicator in oil and gas, but in aviation a near-miss is considered a lagging indicator. “Many incidents we see become defined as safety incidents and then become a lagging indicator,” he says, “but the root cause is something different. When we’re talking to senior leaders and directors, we fail to talk about the causality between root causes and the actual incidents happening in the end.”

Salman Abdulla (Executive Vice President, Emirates Global Aluminum) agrees: “the key word is causation. By looking only at leading indicators, we can’t establish if it’s going in the right or wrong way. We need to know how leading indicators affect lagging indicators.” He explains that at his company, they undertook a study in which 3 types of training (systems, equipment, and behavioral) were analyzed to see which had the best causation in terms of driving the lagging indicators down, and what they found was that it was not the training on safety management systems or the equipment, but rather behavioral training was the only type of training that had a direct relationship.

Ed Stephens (Global HSE/SA Manager, ABB) from the North American panel speaks down a similar line of root causes. “You have all your traditional leading indicators,” he says, “but when you really start to focus on the employee and when real work is being done, the things that are causing them to be rushed, frustrated, or tired – those are the key leading indicators you need to focus on.” 

Quality of indicators

Moreover, many of the panelists agree that it is not the indicators themselves, but the quality of them that really counts. A management walk-around itself does little, unless there are meaningful observations and conversations happening on-site. Teg Matthews (Vice President, SafeStart) from the North American Expert Panel, who conducts focus groups with HSE managers, cites that when it comes to certain leading indicators like pre-shift briefings, managers know how important they are, but they’re not convinced they’re as effective as they can be. So, how can one ensure that their lead indicators are effective?

 “It’s a structural issue,” Abdulla says in the Middle East panel. “If safety and wellbeing are not discussed together with productivity and profitability, then that organization can have as many leading indicators as they like, and their impact will be minimal.”

He explains that the first telltale sign he looks for is the power distance between the “top guy” and those in charge of health and safety. The next thing he looks at is the closure rate. “It’s not the audits or number of non-conformances or gaps you find, but rather how quickly the organization closes them in a meaningful manner.”

Ahmed Khalil (EHS Director, Bahrain Petroleum Company) agrees, and explains that the effectiveness of any KPI or leading indicator all depends on the organization, but nevertheless it is critical that an organization looks at both process safety and personal safety when choosing these indicators. And again, all over the board, panelists agree that the engagement of top management is critical.

Abdulla Marzooqi (Independent Regional HSE Expert) from the Middle East Panel shares that during his time at ADNOC Group in Abu Dhabi they engaged HR, finance, legal and other corporate managers to do a field visit, talk to the workers and see what maintenance or changes were required. “You can resolve issues on the spot this way,” he said.

Arun Subramanian (Associate Vice President & Head - HSE, Coromandel International Limited), from the India Expert Panel also spoke about the importance of this, explaining that “one of the key leading indicators is the transparency and commitment of top leadership.”

“If that is visible,” he says, “a lot of things are put in place.” But, engaging top management is easier said than done. 

 “One of the biggest challenges”, Ghanem says, “is that one of the most important things that HSE practitioners are not able to explain to leadership is that leading indicators are important because of their causality. You have to say ‘look, if these leading indicators become better, you’re going to get better performance,’ but because there is a time gap there needs to be a leap of faith from leadership.”

Dorathi explains that you need to show top management the potential negative consequences as well. “What is the worst thing that can happen that will really attract their attention?,” she asks. 

 Stephens closes off the North American panel with an important remark: “The indicators that have gotten your incident rates low are not necessarily the ones that are going to keep the incident rates low or get them any lower.

“What we’ve learned is that you have to shift the focus back to leadership and change the way you think about safety,”

With this in mind, he explains that something like teaching the critical error reduction techniques is the next step. That way you can ask people to rate their state on a scale from 0 - 10, and now you can monitor changes or improvements in terms of rushing, frustration, fatigue and complacency.

Wilson agrees. “Complacency would certainly be a reliable leading indicator for disasters… it’s like the common denominator. But, if you are doing fairly reliable Rate Your State conversations on a regular basis you can get ‘barometer’ like predictability. In other words, you might not know what minute or even what hour, but you know a storm is coming.”

So, what does this all mean?

The insight from these experts seems to suggest that there are no magic leading indicators that can prevent incidents across the board. Rather, there are different leading indicators that work for different companies, but only when they are coupled with transparency and engagement from top-management. And, in the case of hazard IDs and near-misses, that they are dealt with in an effective and timely manner. But, at the end of the day, none of the panelists in North America, Europe, The Middle East, India and Asia had an example of a time when a company (they had worked for) had made a significant proactive change based upon leading indicators.

As Abdulla said, “a leading indicator should offer the organization a picture of the things that are not working well and the things that are, so they can take corrective action before they become incidents or injuries.” And while yes, leading indicators certainly should do all of that, the reality was that nobody had an example. They all thought the others would have lots or at least some. But when they all put our cards on the table, nobody even had a pair, let alone a full house.

So Waddah suggested that, “leading or lagging – it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can present a combination of Key Performance Indicators that get senior management to move in a positive direction.”