Recently, the CEO of a leading chemical company told me he dislikes the term “world-class safety,” because its meaning is so ambiguous. “Everyone talks about wanting a world-class safety program, but nobody provides a straightforward definition of this vision. What does it mean to be world class?”

This is the first of three columns exploring what it takes to be world class in workplace safety. My answer does not come from common sense, but from more than five years of empirical research. In “From Good to Great” (2001, Harper Collins, NY), Jim Collins and his research team studied 11 companies that rocketed from being good to achieving greatness — generating cumulative stock returns that on average were seven times better than general stock market — for a sustained period of 15 years.

Collins and his researchers systematically compared these good-to-great companies with a carefully selected set of 11 companies that maintained good profits for at least 15 years, but never made the leap to true greatness, using Collins’ financial criteria.

Good-to-great companies demonstrated signature qualities not consistently observed at comparison companies. These attributes afford us an operational definition of “world-class safety” — and suggest ways to achieve this enviable level of safety excellence.

Here are Collins’ five fundamentals:

1) Get the right people on the job;

2) Get the wrong people off the job;

3) Match talent and interest with job operations;

4) Maintain a climate of truth-telling by engaging people in rigorous debate, analysis, and continuous learning; and,

5) Confront the facts, even when they are harsh.

Recruit the right people

Collins stresses from the start that you need to employ the right people — “it’s who you pay, not how you pay them,” he writes. He uses a bus as a metaphor for today’s organization, emphasizing the need “to get the right people on the bus in the first place and to keep them there.”

Character, work ethic, conscientiousness, and values are the “right” stuff to look for in people, more important than educational background, practical skills, specialized knowledge and work experience, according to Collins. Skills and know-how are teachable; experience changes with time. But things like character and values are presumably more permanent traits.

Top performers are motivated by the intrinsic or natural consequences of their job, according to Collins. If people do not find such satisfaction in their job, it’s in the best interest of all involved to let them go early or find them another assignment.

Find the right seats

Once you have the right people on your bus, it’s essential to put each person in the right seat. It can take time to determine whether less-than-great performance means a person is merely in the wrong seat on the bus or needs to get off the bus altogether. These harsh decisions require ongoing assessment through behavioral observation, as well as interpersonal conversation and coaching.

Climate of truth-telling

It might seem cold to push people off the bus, or to yank people from one seat to another. Yet this is the culture of good-to-great companies — employees engage in rigorous debate, analysis and continuous learning to uncover and report the objective facts of current reality. A climate of truth-telling is created in part by supervisors leading with questions — not answers. And supers seek facts — not faults.

Good-to-great companies deal with as much adversity as comparison companies, writes Collins. The difference is this: good-to-great companies uncover the brutal facts of the situation (poor performance, poor performers) and confront them head-on. They emerge from their troubles stronger than before.

Relevance to safety

These special qualities of good-to-great companies can help us define world-class safety cultures:

  • World-class safety requires open, frank, and fact-finding conversations about all safety-related incidents, from close calls and first-aid cases to the most serious injuries and fatalities.

    A world-class safety workforce discusses freely and openly, without embarrassment, all injuries (minor and major), as well as close calls. Workers realize that only through such open discussion can the environmental, behavioral, and cultural factors contributing to these mishaps be rooted out. Facing such adversity head-on results in a workforce more empowered to prevent occupational injuries.

  • The high safety standards of a world-class organization are explained to all employees, with specific reference to the behaviors of relevant jobs.

    Safety organizations aspiring to be world class give specific safety-related expectations during worker orientation. New workers are observed carefully during this orientation period to determine compatibility between job function and individual talents, interests, and values.

  • When an employee’s safety-related behavior does not meet specific expectations, a corrective action plan is implemented that includes candid conversation and a personal commitment to change — or get off the bus. This is the relevance of getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats.

    At a workshop I gave last December to 90 first-line supervisors, the plant manager urged me to emphasize this particular lesson. He wanted his supervisors to realize that workers may not be doing the job for which they are most suited, and this could be a safety hazard. And in some cases, an employee or contractor may not care about safety to the degree demanded by the work culture. He wanted his supervisors to look for these incongruities and then engage in open and frank conversation with individuals whose at-risk behaviors suggest they are not prepared or appropriate for a particular job.

    To achieve world-class status in safety, work cultures need to help employees confront the brutal reality that at-risk behavior cannot exist in a workplace that promotes safety as a core value. This does not necessarily mean a risk-taking person should be bumped off the bus, but it does mean some corrective action is required — and the sooner the better.

    Part of that corrective plan requires the person to commit to specific behavior change, and any peer or management support needed to make this happen must be detailed.

    Bear in mind we are talking about the qualities of an ideal Total Safety Culture. These qualities reflect safety ideals toward which we should aspire. Rarely, if ever, are these exemplary criteria achieved throughout an entire workplace.