Chances are that you have a safety team — or likely many safety teams — within your organization. And chances are those teams are greatly under-performing and inconsistent. Under-achievement is often a result of our failure to give our teams key tools that would enable their success. Employ these five essentials for successful safety teams and revolutionize performance in the process.

1.) Develop a Shared Belief System (SBS)

Description: Any guess as to how many people are injured using table saws each year in the U.S.? It is over 60,000! To solve this safety issue, most teams would examine the facts and conclude it is “just part of using the saw.” As a result, a team might set an aggressive goal to reduce injuries on table-saws by 25 percent! Does that sound familiar?

A few years ago, a team had a different thought. In discussions of table saw injuries, one team member believed these incidents could be prevented, and he was able to sell this belief to the entire team. Armed with a shared belief system, this team dug deeper than any previous team. They discovered that if a small electric charge was placed on the blade, it could be connected to a meter. The meter continuously measured voltage and any voltage drop; a voltage drop would occur if a finger or hand touched it. When the meter detected a drop, it triggered a breaking mechanism that stopped the blade 10 times faster than a vehicle air bag is activated. The result was elimination of injuries. This result was only possible because the team believed in the same highly challenging yet achievable end.

Reality trap: Teams fail to discuss beliefs and agree on a shared system, such as “all table-saw injuries are preventable.” A shared belief system is the foundation of a team’s success. We can have a talented team, provide outstanding management support, follow through on the other four team secrets, hang high glossy colored safety posters, etc., but if we fail to engage, understand and challenge the shared belief system, our team will not produce positive change or substantial and sustained results.

Solution: Hold honest discussions on individual beliefs regarding safety and injury prevention. Let these discussions lead to the establishment of a team belief statement. This is an over-arching statement about what the team believes is possible in safety.

2.) Provide Crystal Clear Direction (CDC)

Description: We would never hail a cab and tell the driver, “I’m not sure where I want to go, just drive.” When we get in a cab, we have a direction, purpose, budget and expected arrival time. Unfortunately, too often we stick our safety teams in a cab and tell the driver to “just drive.” We fail to give crystal clear direction (CDC). The best way to provide our teams with direction is through a specific end statement (Hackman). This is a statement of team destination but not the route (means) by which to get there. It is management’s role to challenge the team with a CDC; it is the team’s job to use the provided tools, training, knowledge and talent to get there.

Reality trap: Management’s job is to provide a specific end statement. The team’s job is to outline their course of action based upon that end statement, or in other words, plan the travel route. The trap is that management — not wanting to interfere with the team — fails to examine and challenge the team’s action plan. Just as a team should demand a specific end statement, an action plan to meet that end should be required of the team.

Solution: Engage the entire team. Generally safety teams have a few members with official titles, such as chairperson and secretary. The remaining members, however, just show up and eat donuts. Once the specific end statement is communicated, have the team identify the jobs and roles needed for success. Assign each team member to one or more of these specific roles or tasks.

3.) Provide clear structure

Description: In December 2006, mid-Missouri was blanketed by nearly 24 inches of snow. With the weight of the snow, many warehouses and factories were damaged as roofs collapsed. One of the more intriguing roof cave-ins, however, happened to a large horse barn. While most roofs failed in the first 24 hours, this one caved in almost a week after the snow fell. Insurance officials investigated and determined that the roof was built to withstand the 24 inches of snow when that snow was distributed evenly. But during several periods of melting and re-freezing, the snow shifted, sliding and gathering along the mid-point on each side, causing failure.

 “Every organization,” Stephen Covey says, “is uniquely designed to exactly produce the results it achieves.” Clear structure can be defined as “what is acceptable on this team.” It’s the written and unwritten set of norms and rules that allow the team to achieve, function well or cave in under its own weight.

Reality trap: Newly formed teams are eager and willing to share in the work of the team, thus teamwork and assignments (weight) are more or less distributed equally among members. Over time, if structure and rules are not clear, some team members will disengage and fail to complete assignments, roles and responsibilities. In the end, one or two team members will be carrying the weight of the entire team. Eventually, the team will collapse.

Solution: Establish rules and norms and find fun ways to enforce them. For example, one team I served on had a rule that anyone late for a team meeting had to pay a $5.00 fine with all of the money going to charity. It was a fun way to enforce the team value of promptness.

4.) Offer time, training, dollars and recognition

Description: “An army runs on its stomach,” is a saying used frequently. It refers to all of the supports including food but extending to fuel, clothing, medical, training, communications, transportation, logistics, etc. needed to make a military mission successful. Safety teams will flourish or succeed on the support they are given. Arguably, the five key safety team supports are: time, budget, training/skill development, clerical/office assistance and feedback/recognition.

Reality trap: Lackluster team performance is blamed on the team. A team that is not performing up to par may be more of a reflection of what we have put in their ‘stomach’ than on the team itself. The trap is writing off a team because of poor performance instead of asking tough questions about the supports we failed to provide.

Solution: Ask the team what they need. Too often we assume the team has what they need or will ask if they don’t. Instead, ask team leaders key questions such as, “How can I support you better?” or “What keeps getting in your way?” Keep asking these questions until meaningful responses are received.

5.) Evaluate each meeting

Description: In a safety world dominated by the behavior-based safety model, it should be no surprise that coaching or feedback is a one of the five keys to a successful team. Today, there is a lot of pressure on safety staff and management alike to be great coaches. Forget about the pressure to be great and simply strive to be a “GOOD” coach. GOOD means:

• Get in the game. One can only be effective if in touch with the pulse of the team.

• Offer feedback. Too often we observe a team and fail to offer positive and constructive feedback.

• Be Optimistic. Remain upbeat; the team will feed off of your positive energy.

• Finally, be Determined to make a difference. Understand your role as a coach is to change the team when sometimes the team is striving to stay the same.

Reality trap: Failure to coach the team. Too often, we assume that since the team consists of a cross-section of our leaders, they don’t need our feedback; that assumption leads to ineffective teams. In truth, safety teams generally consist of field or floor employees. They are subject matter experts but often not astute on the inner workings of successful teams.

Solution: To ensure consistent and effective coaching, design a feedback sheet. It may contain questions that evaluate the specific end statement, action plan to reach that end, structure, support and coaching. Each meeting, a leader can fill in the sheet. Afterwards, team leaders discuss the evaluation tool along with specific adjustments needed to make the team more effective moving forward.

“It takes team work,” John Maxwell said, “to make the dream work.” In the end, teams are a part of our business and safety culture. Making them an effective part of this process is the next step toward our goal of a zero-injury workplace. Are your teams on target?




SawStop, LLC, 9564 S.W. Tualatin Road, Tualatin, OR 97062,

Hackman, Richard J. Leading Teams; Setting the Stage for Great Performances, Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2002.