In developing your organization’s “vision” of safety excellence, you might look beyond safety to today’s management philosophies to see how they apply. For instance, the book “Built to Last” by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras examines the characteristics of organizations successful for more than 50 years and explains why. Collins goes further in his study of organizational excellence in his more recent book, “Good to Great.” Here are some thoughts from both books that apply to safety:

  • Enduringly successful companies are not driven by profit, but by values and purpose. Now consider: Is employee safety a core value in most workplaces today? Does the workforce perceive safety as a core value?

    In many companies, management claims safety is a core value, yet employees perceive it is less important than other corporate functions (such as production and quality). During slow times, safety is considered a high priority, only to be forgotten during rush production periods.

  • Core values do not change over time (per regulatory mandates). Emphasis on safety is not personality dependent. Safety cannot improve/ decline with different managers/executives.

  • Commitment to “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” is genuine. Good to great firms willingly commit to new approaches. In safety, they use Deming’s philosophies rather than resist new-but-common management techniques. This does not mean they buy an external system. Rather, they build a safety system with internal resources, both hourly staff and management.

  • High-performing companies focus on beating themselves, not the competition. Who truly cares what Steel Co. “A” is achieving in safety and health? What is important is whether last year’s safety and health accomplishments are being surpassed. Invalid numbers (such as accident rates) are not used for comparison.

  • The focus is on acts, not visionary statements. What will your firm do today to reduce accidents? Who is doing what? How are employees evaluated? In safety, each individual understands expectations and is regularly measured to ensure those expectations are achieved.

  • Build and improve the process and don’t worry about results. These firms ignore incident rates and focus on the process. Is it better than last year? In safety, both upstream and downstream measures must assess process improvement, not number of accidents.

  • Since authenticity is key (management credibility), firms generating enduring results concentrate on accountability, ensuring that each person — from CEO to hourly employee — understands his/her tasks, and is measured and rewarded appropriately.

    From reality to the vision

    The steps you need to take to begin to bring your vision to life depend on the results of a reality check — in the form of an organization-wide perception survey — and the description of your vision. The steps often will look like this:

    1) Communicate to all employees the vision. Have the top leaders explain where they intend to go — directions, plans and goals for safety.

    2) Communicate to all employees the results of the perception survey reality check. Place a major emphasis on the hourly employees’ perception of where the organization is today.

    3) Communicate to all employees how the vision can be achieved. This might include getting a better understanding of why the reality check, the perceptions, came out as they did. Hold discussions with cross-sectional study teams, further interviews, etc.

    4) Communicate to all employees the steps to be taken. Usually this entails:

    • A clear definition of roles for each level of the organization from hourly worker up to and including the CEO.
    • A clear definition of tasks that each person will be required to perform.
    • A clear measurement for each person to show whether or not tasks are performed.
    • A clear statement of what will be the reward contingent upon task achievement.

    There may be much more — task forces for various aspects of the system, for instance.

    And most important, once your accountability system is in place, make every effort to get the active participation and involvement of every employee. Employees must be free to choose to participate. And activities must be meaningful things connected to safety (not just the grunt work that managers are too busy to do).


    Collins, J. and J. Porras, Built to Last. Harper Collins, NY, 1994.

    Collins, J., Good to Great, Harper Collins, NY, 2001.