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Your BBS Process May Need a Reboot!

by Tom Werner and JP Martinez

Behavior Based Safety (BBS) is a proven way of strengthening safe behavior and reducing injuries and close calls. Yet, we sometimes hear about BBS processes that started out strongly but have stalled. Perhaps the organization experienced a spike in safety incidents, the number of observations has dropped off, observation checklists seem “pencil whipped,” observers appear to be skipping feedback conversations, or some employees are simply disengaged. The process often seems to have a sense of staleness and low energy.  

Organizations in this predicament find that they need to reboot BBS to give the process a shot in the arm, often as part of their efforts to promote continuous improvement in safety.

The elements of a successful BBS process include the following:

  • An employee-owned and -operated Steering Committee (or more than one)
  • A site-relevant observation checklist (or more than one)
  • Training and coaching of observers
  • Voluntary, anonymous, discipline-free observations
  • Immediate conversations that are mainly positive feedback about safe behavior
  • Individual and group recognition for observers
  • Analysis of data obtained during observations
  • Safety action plans to improve safe behaviors
  • Site-wide communication about trends in the observation data
  • Weekly actions by managers and supervisors that demonstrate their commitment to safety improvement and the BBS process

Typically, organizations involve employees in the careful design and implementation of these elements. As time passes and personnel move to other positions, the key elements sometimes drift from the original design, resulting in less participation, fewer observations, a frustrated Steering Committee, and ultimately less safe behavior and more incidents.  

Why do BBS processes sometimes drift from their original design?

  • The key features of BBS may fade.
  • BBS-related skills may need to be refreshed.
  • New leaders and employees may miss a rich introduction to BBS.

The key features of BBS may fade. The very features that make BBS special and effective–that it’s voluntary, anonymous, discipline-free, and positive–may run counter to how performance is managed in many organizations. A frustrated manager who says, “We need to push people hard to get the number of BBS observations up,” is saying something that may be normal in other types of work situations but pushes against the voluntary feature of BBS. An annoyed supervisor who says, “Wearing PPE is at less than 100 percent? Tell me which of my people is not wearing PPE!” is having an understandable reaction but is contradicting the anonymity requirement of BBS. Such actions can slowly erode the unique features of BBS.  

BBS-related skills may need to be refreshed. If it has been a while since the initial BBS training, BBS-related skills may have declined. Having an effective feedback conversation with an observee after a BBS observation takes real competence. Are all BBS observers still skillful in giving feedback effectively? BBS Steering Committee members need many skills to analyze observation data, make decisions and action plans, and communicate with their constituents. Do all of the current BBS Steering Committee members still have all of the skills they need? Leaders should provide support so that employees can own and operate BBS successfully. Do all of the current leaders still know how to support BBS effectively?

New leaders and employees may miss a rich introduction to BBS. Sometimes, after a year or two or three, the original BBS Steering Committee members who understood the importance of all the steps and tasks that drive a BBS process, and routinely stuck to their roles and the formal agenda, rotate off the committee. New Steering Committee members may not learn the importance of each element of the Steering Committee meeting or may not believe all of the elements are necessary or may simply slide away from doing it all. New leaders may arrive at the site who don’t realize the support that is necessary to help employees own and operate BBS. New employees may be hired who didn’t experience the excitement of the initial BBS start-up. These new members of the organization may not tune into the special elements of BBS and so may not embrace it.

Given the possibility of drift, many organizations find value in regularly assessing the key elements of their BBS process. Such an assessment might include one-on-one interviews, focus groups, and an anonymous questionnaire. BBS elements to check are as follows:

  1. The observation checklist. Are the behaviors on the checklist still related to preventing safety incidents that occur at the site? Are the behaviors on the checklist still related to the site’s current work processes?
  2. The observees’ experience. For the observees, is a BBS observation still a mostly positive feedback conversation, with no negative repercussions? Are observers still having positive, pinpointed feedback conversations with observees?
  3. The observers’ experience. For the observers, is doing a BBS observation still a voluntary, convenient experience? Are observers in the habit of doing BBS observations each and every month?
  4. The Steering Committee. Is the BBS process still owned and operated by front-line employees? Does the Steering Committee still represent all of the areas at the site? Is the Steering Committee still doing all of the steps each month that are necessary to manage BBS effectively?
  5. Individual recognition and group celebrations. Are observers receiving recognition every month? Is the whole site included in celebrations for hitting observer-participation goals each month?
  6. Safety action plans. Are action plans implemented to improve behaviors that are concerns?
  7. Communication. Are BBS results and information communicated promptly each month to leadership and to the site?
  8. Training and coaching. Are new employees and leaders trained how to do a BBS observation and have a positive feedback conversation? Are Steering Committee members coaching observers on completing observation checklists fully and on having positive feedback conversations?
  9. The Facilitator. Is there a Facilitator (a BBS “black belt”) who helps the Steering Committee operate the BBS process successfully? Does the Facilitator train new members who rotate onto the Steering Committee?
  10. Leadership support. Do senior leaders and leaders at all levels support and participate in the BBS process?

After assessing your BBS process, if you identified elements that have drifted from the formal design, the size and complexity of the reboot may be small, medium, or large.

  • A small reboot might be a fix of one or more specific elements. For example, if you notice that the Steering Committee has shrunken in size and no longer represents the entire site, the obvious fix would be to add members to regain full representation.
  • A medium reboot might be a retraining of the Steering Committee members, or leaders, or all employees (or all three groups).
  • A large reboot would essentially be a restart-from-scratch, including an analysis of safety incidents; design of a new observation checklist(s); design of the recognition, safety action plan, communication, coaching, and other processes; design of the monthly Steering Committee agenda; and training of leaders and all employees.     

Some organizations may have special needs that might be best addressed by adding new elements to the BBS process. Some organizations may want to increase their behavioral focus on preventing serious injuries and fatalities by adding special observations during high-risk and non-routine activities. Others may need to increase employees’ focus on hazard recognition with exposure-based observations.

In summary, drift in a BBS process is normal and easy to understand. Carefully study your BBS process every few years. There is no shame in saying, “Yes, our BBS process has slipped some and it’s time for a reboot.” Quite the opposite! A stale BBS process is a waste of past effort and a missed opportunity. A sage from Texas once said, “BBS, like almost any other successful organizational change process, is a process of two steps forward and one step back.  The key to success is to learn from each step back, and keep moving forward.” A reinvigorated BBS process is a powerful way to prevent safety incidents.


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