I’m a private pilot. And I’ve been a safety consultant for 25 years. I view everything with a critical eye, making a thoroughly pleasant flying experience something rare. Most frustrated travelers and stand-up comics lament the annoyances and inconveniences. I draw a direct line from surface issues to deeper cultural challenges in the airline’s organization.

My occupational curse was clarified recently as I was flying on Virgin America from San Francisco to Las Vegas at the first half of the week, and then on one of the Big Two airlines to Dallas. Virgin’s healthy culture comes shining through, from the glossy, sparkling surfaces and mellow mood lighting in the cabin, to the quirky sense of humor in the animated safety video. When you get off the plane in Vegas and walk through the jetway, a giant red sign calls your attention before you make the turn into the terminal:“OK, let’s get this straight. We’re in Cincinnati, right?”

When you reflect on the contrast with most other airlines, (the boring safety speech, the filthy tray tables, the $5 charge for a pillow) you begin to see that leading indicators are around us all the time. When I pull down the seat tray that features slime and muck from the last seven flights, I wonder about maintenance procedures. Then I immediately worry about maintenance of the hydraulics, the engines and so on. No surprise: Virgin has an impeccable safety record with the lowest number of FAA citations.

Anticipate and predict
Leading or upstream indicators are measures that allow you to anticipate and predict. They provide a precursor to any degradation in the safety process, enabling early management intervention. Lagging or downstream indicators are those metrics for events and conditions that already happened (or didn’t happen). Useful for reactive measures to drive facility performance, lagging indicators also aid in benchmarking that performance against similar operations.

Employees can only affect, control and shape leading indicators. There’s nothing an employee can do today to change lagging indicators such as last month’s recordable rate, and under-reporting is a frequent occurrence.

Safety culture management
I’ve long advocated that every company needs to develop a safety culture management system. Some are Web-based and record, report and then reward on discretionary effort and employee engagement. A safety culture management system records a set of actions and creates reports that illustrate leading indicators — a management dashboard of how the enterprise is driving.

Refineries and construction clients track 28 or 30 such activities and reward for each. These might include near miss reports (perhaps the most essential leading indicator of all), observations, suggestions, job safety audits, PPE inspections, vehicle/equipment preventive maintenance, education and training, safety meeting participation, mentoring a new hire and others.

As engagement in these activities is recorded, the dashboard becomes useful in measuring the health of the organization and the analysis of risk, tracking both “risk-based” and “safety culture” activities. The list of indicators should be dynamic, adaptable to changing conditions and performance of the operation, with consideration of cost benefits. Rewards and incentives for participation in discretionary activities should be fluid as well, allowing safety committees to assign point values (never cash) to specific actions.

Safety professionals continue to point out that industrial systems should not be as concerned with isolated operator error or failure of hardware component as renewing the focus on insidious failures that accumulate in organizational domains. In fact, plant shutdowns and catastrophic incidents and injuries are often traced to the failure by senior management to recognize the progressive degradation in the safety management processes and the very culture of the enterprise.

Tracking safety performance
The development and installation of a robust safety management system fosters meaningful dialogue among all layers in an enterprise, capturing data and rewarding involvement. An 800-employee construction company client of ours in the Midwest recently conducted their annual safety meeting with an emphasis on leading indicator reports with data sorted by supervisors. A bonus award of points was made to all members of the supervisor’s team most vested into the culture change initiatives as measured by the safety performance indicators.

Tracking safety performance indicators is intended to:
  • include an objective and indisputable set of safety parameters;
  • provide actions that every employee can choose to participate in every day;
  • offer insights, when used as a set, regarding what is important to safety;
  • show correlation between incidents and inspections and other upstream actions;
  • present information that is understandable to all stakeholders;
  • form an additional basis for self-assessment and to take corrective measures;
  • develop an additional basis for investigations by regulators;
  • enable comparisons to be made, benchmarking time periods or other facilities;
  • encourage contractors to monitor performance using specific indicators;
  • promote contractors to improve their own processes.
The validity of this approach, of course, depends on your fundamental assumption about risk and general safety performance. If you believe that a safe culture depends upon employees who are fully engaged and motivated to involve themselves in the continuous improvement of process and procedure, you will see the merits of using leading indicators as your foremost measure.

But you might see your organization in the same way as most experience air travel: a series of annoyances, acceptable risk propositions and factors that are simply out of your control.

World-class safety cultures are developed by committed leadership, enthusiastic employees and a shared quest in spending five to seven years to use intelligent design and strategic thinking for the improvement of every aspect of their enterprise. Leading indicators can give us the insight and predictive power to drive our organizations while looking through the windshield, rather than the rear-view mirror.

As I sit in Seat 24A typing away at 35,000 feet, I can’t help myself. I’ve wiped down the seat tray before I set up the laptop, and now I’m preoccupied with the fact that my seat back keeps reclining on its own. I am the worst commercial airline passenger that I know.