Terrible things happen when leaders put safety on the back burner.
Recent events make it seem as though companies are putting profits over safety: The mining disaster in Turkey, the missing Malaysia Airlines jet, and the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol have highlighted widespread safety transgressions and prompted leaders to rethink their nations’ entire safety systems. And even here in the U.S., General Motors is being blasted for their "broken safety culture" after a massive recall and unprecedented $35-million fine.
Whether it's a corporation or an entire country, building a culture of prevention should be on the top of every leaders’ priority list.
Unfortunately, many leaders still take a shortsighted view and see safety purely as a cost, and not as an investment. Then, when safety failures inevitably occur, both companies and governments rush to publish more rules and regulations. While often necessary, these after-the-fact protocols pale in comparison to the effectiveness of building a true safety culture as the bedrock of any organization.
Instead of taking a reactionary approach to safety, here’s how you can ensure that a true culture of prevention takes hold in your company and why it’s so important to do so:
In its simplest terms, culture is the convergence of people and process. When this exists, you have an employee base that shares the same beliefs and values about the company. Accepted patterns of behavior are clearly expressed and understood.
Accidents arise when a healthy company culture does not exist. Employees cut corners because the company’s values and processes are not understood. GM’s CEO, Mary Barra, pointed to a "culture of cost" which led to a decision not to upgrade a 59 cent part. There were employees who thought that cutting cost was the most important objective. In a true safety culture, red flags would have been thrown and the recall would have happened at the time of the discovery.
In a culture of prevention, safety is not a department; it’s a way of life. Companies often use "safety and compliance" in the same breath, yet these are separate, albeit related, functions.
Your safety personnel can coach, train, and mentor but are ultimately not responsible for the execution of safe behavior. Only operations can execute on safety. Assign an appropriate person to handle your compliance issues, but recognize that safety execution requires different and vastly broader bandwidth then regulatory compliance.
Take a look around your company; do you see signs of a rich or poor culture? For most of us, signs of both exist. Our roles as leaders are to build up the rich culture and kill the poor culture.
Signs of a poor cultural environment:
- Senior management delegates the upkeep of, or ignores, culture, and fails to live by the company values.
- Culture is seen as a project, not a way of life.
- Culture conversations are reactive and occur only when trouble erupts.
- Employees lack empowerment and are not appreciated.
- Cultural engagement is left to outside consultants and fancy posters with no long-terms effort made to make the culture integral to the organization.
- Bad behavior is ignored or, even worse, accepted.
Signs that a rich culture is in place:
- The whole company is fully engaged in building a world-class culture.
- Culture is woven into every peer-to-peer interaction.
- Employees share a common vision and are fully empowered to behave in alignment with that vision.
- Culture centers on consistent messages which are communicated repeatedly.
- Silos—or the idea that everyone works in their own department or division of the company and are concerned about what is best for them or their teams, rather than for the greater benefit of the enterprise—do not exist.
In a rich safety culture, employees know the right actions to take. For instance, all of us have been pushed to meet a deadline or operate within a budget. What decision would we make if meeting the deadline or budget forced us to violate the law or put people at risk?
In a rich safety culture, nobody has to think about that answer. The entire team understands that safety is a core value, which is never compromised. In a rich safety culture, there is a universal mindset that zero is the only goal when measuring accidents and lost time injuries. If you accept one accident, you might as well accept 1,000.
Knowing the difference between values and priorities is the single greatest point of confusion for an organization. Values define and bind us together, drive decisions in every one of our interactions, and never change. Priorities are tasks requiring action, must be managed daily, and shift frequently based on a given situation. Your values always guide your priorities. You must ensure that values are never compromised. Safety—and safe behaviors—must be nonnegotiable values in a culture of prevention.
As business leaders, we have an obligation to create the safest possible environment for our employees and the public. If you think an investment in safety is too expensive, consider the opposite. Ignoring safety ultimately will lead to accidents, litigation, increased insurance cost, product failures and damaged reputation.
Smart customers perform due diligence on their vendors. Ignoring safety will cost your business long term in the modern era. Moreover, safety negligence will destroy employee morale. Your employees understand that an investment in safety is an investment in their well being. Building a safety culture is a hard-core investment with measurable return. Building a safety culture will take hard work and discipline, but it does not require tremendous sums of money.
Dismissing safety as too expensive is a lame excuse for avoiding one of our core obligations as leaders. GM will survive its safety failure, but do you have the resources to withstand such a crisis?
—Brian Fielkow is a corporate culture and management advisor, and the author of Driving to Perfection: Achieving Business Excellence by Creating a Vibrant Culture, a how-to book based on his 25 years of executive leadership experience at public and privately held companies.