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How Safety Professionals Can Increase Organizational Profitability: A Conversation

I recently had a conversation with a Safety Professional from a Fortune 100 company. I repeat it here so that you can draw your own conclusions.

Jim, before you implemented behavior based safety did you have a well designed safety management system?

Jim said, "Oh yeah, we thought it was world class."

Then why did you implement BBS?

"Many reasons; we had more recordable injuries than we thought we should and we knew that a high percentage of them were caused by behavior - employee behavior, supervisory behavior, and leadership behavior."So it wasn't because you had a weak system?"Oh no, the system was good; people were not following the system, the procedures, the rules - they weren't doing what they were trained to do." So the issue was not the system; it was behavioral?

"Yep; when we implemented BBS we found out why. Sometimes following the rules requires more effort, more time, or can be uncomfortable for the employee. So they take short cuts or just don't do it. Pretty simple really."

How did BBS help you solve that problem?

"Again, pretty simple. We put in some positives to encourage them to overcome the negatives. You know, positive feedback - recognition for improvement, positive leadership attention. Made a big difference."

So you got good results?

"Yeah, the numbers don't lie. Big changes in recordables, lost days, and employee engagement. As you know, BBS is participative and it brings frontline employees into a partnership with me and management. A big part of the improvement came about because when we performed safety observations. The observers asked the observees how we could improve safety or remove any barriers that were making it harder for them to work safely. That was big. Lots of things we didn't know about came to the surface."

How is your company's operational performance right now?

"If you mean production and quality, it's pretty good. We have Operational Excellence and Lean implemented and they seem to be helping us. We have some nagging quality issue and some delivery issues, but we are working on them."

So you think your company has a good operations system in place? As good for operations performance as your safety management system was for safety?

"Yep, just as good."

Then why are you not helping them?

"What do you mean?

You had a great safety management system in place that was not performing as good as it could because you had behavioral issues. People were not doing what the system was designed to do. Doesn't it occur to you that operations may be having the same problem? They have a great system but employees are not executing - they are not behaving to systems design.

"Well, I expect that is true. They probably have some of the same problems we had getting people to do things according to procedure and training."

So I repeat, why are you not helping. Operations and leadership helped you. They know that safety is important to create a healthy business. You know that operations is important in creating a healthy business - to sustain jobs and livelihoods. So why haven't you pushing them to apply the behavioral techniques that have worked well for you - worked to help encourage safe employee behavior - to encourage employee overall job performance?

Tell me how you applied behavioral techniques to safety?

"O.K. - first we looked at the injury data and discovered what types of injuries were happening most frequently and in which departments. Then we identified what employees were doing or not doing that led to the injuries."

So in operations you would look at performance data and determine what employees were doing or not doing to create issues in through-put, quality, timeliness, error rate and stuff like that?

"Exactly."

What did you do next when applying behavioral techniques to safety?

"We put together checklist by area and included observations that targeted the behaviors that we knew were the biggest contributors to injuries. We called those behaviors the 'low-hanging fruit.' Then we started doing observations and giving people positive feedback for safe behavior. Behavior like tying off, using your fall protection, when working above 4 feet. That was one behavior that was causing us a lot of injuries."

So the positive feedback motivated people to increase the targeted safe behaviors?

"That is the critical thing. You need to create positives - from observers, supervisors, co-workers, and senior leaders. Focusing on the behaviors, measuring their frequency, providing metrics, and working on the things they wanted us to do to help them do their job more safely - it all came together to encourage people to do the safe thing."

Then if you have a quality problem, you can follow the same basic template? You can identify the behaviors that are leading to the off-quality product, provide the employees with a list of critical quality improvement behaviors, and create some data around improvement - so that you can provide them with positive feedback and recognition for improvement?

"I can't think of a reason why that wouldn't work. Actually, it never occurred to me to bring this up to the guys in operations. I guess i didn't think through how to do it there like we did it in safety."

Do you think asking them what they need to improve their job so that they can perform better would work as well?

"I'm sure that would work. Me and the other guys hear complaints from employees all the time about how this of that could be done better, or how doing something a certain way is stupid and waste time. They all have ideas about how to do things better. I think bringing behavioral techniques into operations would be as successful for them as it was for us in safety."

So what now?

"I have a couple of ideas. One is to mention this at the next operations meeting we have. I don't they have a clue that they have behavioral issues or how to tackle them. Secondly, I think if they agree, I am going to put together a joint operations-safety task group to develop a template for applying the behavioral techniques from BBS to operations. I think it will be easy and that a cross disciplinary group will create buy-in from everyone."

Jim, I think operations will be quite happy with your suggestions and with the success they will achieve by using these same tools in operations. Thanks for talking with me.