How can safety cultures blend after a merger or acquisition?
Start from the top
On the opposite side of the country, another safety story was developing.
For many years, workers at air-quality product manufacturer CleanAIR Systems in Santa Fe, NM experienced hand injuries, cuts, burns and near misses.
Peoria, IL-based Caterpillar acquired CleanAIR Systems in 2010. It didn’t take long to recognize a culture problem at the facility, where nine incidents took place shortly after the deal.
Randy McGuire was part of the group that set about to overhaul the safety culture. CleanAIR Systems was renamed Caterpillar Santa Fe, and the new team quickly engaged employees about how to improve safety.
The organization distributed a “Safety Perception Survey” made up of 73 questions. Managers and supervisors largely believed that they emphasized safety among workers, according to the survey, but hourly employees indicated otherwise.
Caterpillar Santa Fe created a “safety steering team” in light of the results. One group of employees developed a near-miss reporting system and action plan. Another group learned about how to improve inspections for equipment and work environment. That led to the implementation of “safety walks,” during which leaders inspected the facility.
The results spoke for themselves: In one year, the facility improved its recordable injury rate by 70 percent.
McGuire offers advice to other organizations hoping to blend safety cultures successfully.
“Without a doubt, it’s visible leadership commitment to safety,” McGuire said. “It all starts with leaders demonstrating with absolute clarity that nothing is more important than keeping everyone safe. It’s not just words, but actions to demonstrate that from the very beginning.”
McGuire offered several examples.
“Leaders need to be on the floor conducting safety walks, speaking up whenever they observe potentially unsafe conditions, and fostering a stop-to-fix mentality,” McGuire said. “Leaders must create a culture where employees feel free to speak up about safety and participate in the resolution.”
A “hands-off” approach poses dangers, McGuire said. He cited the employee-driven teams at Caterpillar Santa Fe that helped foster a safety mindset and lead to quick improvements. “That’s where the employee safety team can be a huge benefit,” McGuire said. “In our case, those team members felt ownership to continue the safety journey in the facility, reinforced and supported by visible leadership. The safety culture builds momentum as employees see positive changes and leadership commitment.”
Picking up steam
To be safe, AGL Resources and Nicor Gas needed to speak the same language. How did safety fit into the organization’s philosophy? Was it a goal? A guiding principle?
“We came to the conclusion that it’s a value,” Harrison said. “We already had five corporate shared values, and safety was not one of them. Now, it’s our No. 1 value.”
In retrospect, Harrison said, the organization could have benefited from focusing more on language in Year 1. The experience offers a lesson to other companies in the future.
Communication was not limited to executive teams, either. Some of the most valuable lessons could come from employees on the front lines of merging organizations.
“This year, we’re going to conduct an all-employee survey, and there will be multiple questions around safe work and safety culture,” Harrison said. “What I would recommend going forward is the very first year, very early in the merger, to conduct an employee survey as a baseline – every employee, no matter what their position.”
Heinlein said it’s smart for organizations to reach out to their workers. “Sometimes, we put the blinders on and we worry more about the finances than we worry about the people,” Heinlein said. “You’re going to make or break it with those people.”
Leaders involved with the merger also have developed a safety database for best practices and programs. Now, a best practice in Florida can be shared in New Jersey.
“We’re large enough now because of the merger that we’ve got those tools internally,” Harrison said. “And now we’ve got a database that can be sorted and manipulated and used as a resource by internal leaders. It’s an internal sharing and benchmarking tool.
“Many employees and leaders have said to me they feel that Year 4 is different than Years 1-3. We’re picking up pace in Year 4.”
The slow but steady successes that have occurred since AGL Resources and Nicor Gas merged show what is possible for other organizations that join forces.
“Safety usually is a great common thread to align organizations,” Galloway said. “There’s a lot of pride in quality and the products and services a company provides, but safety is such an altruistic thing that it makes sense to be a focal point of merger activities.”
A team-based approach is necessary for creating a culture that is positive and long-lasting, experts say. Some workers will be nervous about possible changes after a merger or acquisition, and it’s important to be as transparent and honest with them as possible. Without clear communication, the rumor mill can start to churn negativity.
“You take a look at the military,” Heinlein said. “You take a look at sports teams. There’s always change. How do you continue to maintain a high level of success?
“In a merger and acquisition, safety is just a piece of it. Really, a successful merger and acquisition is getting everyone on the team, and the rest will fall into place: the education, the pride, the support, the safety, the quality.”
Once the team comes together, it’s able to couple the strengths of both organizations.
“You’re trying to shape a new reality,” Galloway said. “Part of the mindset is, ‘We’re no longer Company A and Company B. We’re Company C.’”
Gradually, cultures align. The end result is a bigger, better – and safer – organization.
“In our case, the safety process created after the acquisition actually formed the basis for a new continuous safety improvement process in the larger division of the company,” McGuire said.
Harrison noted similar improvements.
“The initial effort of merging these two companies was absolutely daunting and intimidating,” Harrison said. “However, putting these efforts in place – coming up with standard, consistent alignment on terminology, on safety branding, on an internal database of safety programs that can be shared – those efforts revealed to us and reinforced that there are more pros than cons when it comes to a merger. We are a stronger company and better capable of serving our customers because of the merger.”