The Role of “Short-Term Wins” When Leading Safety-Culture Change

The Role of “Short-Term Wins” When Leading Safety-Culture ChangeFootball season is fast approaching, and for many NFL teams that means another shot at the Super Bowl—other teams, not so much. All team owners, general managers and head coaches have a vision and direction for their team, but not all those visions will produce results. In fact, some of those visions will end up leading their team to the bottom tier. Imagine for a moment that your team is in that latter category. They follow the leadership’s vision and direction throughout the season while winning no games, yet continue to pursue that vision and promise fans a spot in the playoffs. How many lost games will it take before you and the rest of the fans stop believing in the vision? [content_protector password=”wins” identifier=”wins”]

A very similar principle applies to any organizational change. We’ve been applying Kotter’s eight-step change-management model to a safety-culture change initiative, and have so far covered the first five steps. Kotter’s step-6 is to “generate short-term wins.”

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The primary reason an organization may want to undertake a safety-culture change is to reduce injuries and other incidents. In many cases the catalyst for this decision is a recent rash of incidents, a recent significant injury (such as an amputation), or a recent fatality. The goal in these cases is almost always numbers driven (“we need to reduce our TRIR”), at least initially.

But the numbers are only a symptom of the culture. Don Eckenfelder said it best over a dozen years ago in an article that appeared in Occupational Hazards magazine (“Getting the Safety Culture Right,” Oct, 2003) where he makes the point that “culture predicts performance.” Ultimately, the strength of the safety culture predicts what the numbers will be. But note well, the converse in not true: Performance does not predict culture. Just because we’ve had ten years of no lost-time injuries does not mean we have anything in place to prevent something really bad from happening tomorrow.

In any case, the numbers are long-term wins. Until we get to that point, we need to focus on short-term wins if we want to sustain support for the effort until the numbers goal is met. For this, we’ll need to observe, evaluate, track and measure behaviors that are indicative of a growing safety culture.

Examples of Short-Term Wins

For instance, as anyone who has attended one of my safety-leadership sessions can attest, I’m fond of repeating the mantra: “It’s not a safety culture till it’s led by the front lines.” What that means is, when we can see hourly employees own and lead safety in ways they haven’t done before, that’s a pretty good indication that the safety culture is starting to take hold and is growing.

Examples of this include stepping up and leading a safety meeting or toolbox meeting, coaching the unsafe behavior of a coworker, mentoring a new hire on safe work practices, turning in a good catch, conducting a quality safety observation, or briefing a contractor crew on how the company views safety in the workplace. These are just a few of the ways a front-line employee might take the initiative to own and lead a safety culture. And by the way, our job as leaders is to encourage them to do this and provide the necessary opportunities as well as the training and tools to make them good at it!

fctc-online-bannerOnce they start doing this, we’ll need to take steps to track it and celebrate it. Use every venue you can to announce how many front-line employees stepped up to lead a safety meeting this month, how many “good catches” were turned in, how many safety observation were conducted, etc. Plant-wide meetings are a great way to call attention to this, as are company newsletters, team meetings, break-room bulletin boards, and a number of other venues. Provide recognition and awards for the best good catch of the month, the most safety observations conducted, the most behaviors that were coached, the most employees in one department that led safety meetings this month, the most improved player award, etc.

Be creative with this, and focus on leading indicators that measure culture and show that the effort is growing and taking hold. And do this consistently! Any pause in announcing and celebrating these short-term wins can reset the clock in terms of progress. Build on the momentum you’ve gained, and keep the ball rolling.

We’ll look at Kotter’s next step in the next issue. But that’s it for this edition of Recordable INSIGHTS. Until next time.



About the Author

Eric Svendsen
Eric Svendsen, Ph.D., is Principal and lead change agent for safetyBUILT-IN, a safety-leadership learning and development organization. He has over 20 years experience in creating and executing outcomes-based leadership development and culture change initiatives aligned to organizational goals, and he personally led the safety-culture initiatives of a number of client organizations that resulted in “best ever safety performance” years for those companies.