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Safety leadership

April 1, 2012

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Getting the right information

Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Colin Duncan

In our work, we often find the most significant challenge senior leaders face is in knowing what data should be available to them – and what questions to ask about that data. That issue was brought to life for me recently when I worked with a group of senior leaders. Setting out a blank sheet of paper, I asked them to describe the kind of information they’d need to ensure consistent safety improvement year after year. What would that data look like? How would they find it? The leaders mulled over the metrics they were used to: OSHA recordable rates, total case rates, lost workdays and similar regulatory figures.

Ultimately, the sheet remained blank. Why was that? We know that executives genuinely care about the well-being of their people. We also know that, given the right information, senior leaders can move their organizations forward in remarkable ways. So why would leaders struggle so much with safety?

A large part of the answer lies with traditional safety thinking. Leaders have been trained to ask questions about lagging indicators. In many operations, “safety leadership” is more accurately described as management by exception – leaders respond to events, rather than anticipate and remove risks. The challenge for senior leaders is learning how to deepen their understanding of risk such that they can effectively support safety systems and the people they rely on to execute them.

The communication opportunity

Strategy is built on information. The right data can provide insight into where significant risks are across an operation. They can tell you where there is exposure to systemic failures or where the subtle fissures of misalignment might be forming. In other words, the right information enables you to act.

Getting this kind of information takes more than a dashboard. It requires a back-and-forth information flow that is unbiased and iterative. There are several things leaders can ask, and create dialogue about, to begin this kind of communication:

  • Exposure to life-altering events. While unlikely or infrequent, leaders must pay attention to events that have the potential for significant loss of life or property.
  • Upstream causal factors. Many things in the organization can precede risk, from design processes to management decision-making. Leaders need to be attentive to these systemic factors and know how they are influencing exposure.
  • Safety system configuration. What are the standard disciplines required to manage safety? Leaders must understand if their organization has in place the correct management systems, disciplines and oversight, and in the right mix.
  • Safety system performance. Aside from the “right systems” question is whether or not those systems are executed consistently, cohesively and effectively. Tracking safety actions, resolutions and process improvement is key to executive oversight.
  • Leadership communication style. A leader’s questioning style strongly influences what others perceive to be important. It also shapes the information flow back to the leader. Adopting a style that concentrates on inputs rather than outputs is vital. Asking not, “What are the results?” but rather, “How are we thinking about the issues and improvement opportunities?” garners very different kinds of engagement.

The best kind of information gathering in safety is an ongoing conversation. As leaders gain fluency in safety, their credibility rises, as does the understanding of those around them about what is important. The dialogue matures into a dynamic information flow that reflects actual conditions. This is what allows organizations to grow beyond the limitations of lagging indicators and leverage safety as strategy.  

Colin Duncan is CEO of BST. Duncan drives BST’s global strategy, corporate vision, and the innovation of new methodologies and approaches to deliver sustainable safety improvements to clients.

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