It’s a good question. Interesting how the answer continues to be absent from business school curriculums! In 1993, being convinced that good safety programs produced marginal results at best, I joined the search for a better answer to this “universal question.” Although remaining committed to safety, I felt it necessary to explore beyond the discipline, so I sought answers in the literature of business excellence.

Premised upon D. A. Weaver’s observation, “Excellent organizations frequently achieve exceptional safety results in the absence of any visible safety program, and excellent safety performance cannot be attained in a generally poor organization,” I set out to discover the “secret sauce” of safety excellence. What makes great (safety) companies great? What are the defining elements of excellence in safety?

My quest for (safety) excellence led me in two directions at the same time – past and present. I read the history of management (past) to gain a greater understanding of how we got to where we are today.

I studied the works of Fayol, Taylor, Mayo, Skinner and, of course, the contemporary views of Nikita Khrushchev embraced by most American managers today: Freedom is good, but control is better.

I then proceeded to read the contra-literature of high performance by Deming, Juran, Conway, Peters, Covey, Senge, Stack, Collins, Welch, Drucker and a host of others. From this pool of practical and empirical intellect emerged eight common issues – eight differentiating elements of excellence that hold the universal answer to why employees do what they do. They offer the good reasons for poor performance in the workplace.

The Good Reasons

The good reasons for poor safety performance are unclear vision, weak values, poor leadership, faulty organization, poor human relationships, inadequate communications, inaccurate measurement and lack of consequences.

Studying these perspectives allowed me to identify linkages, define attributes and frame eight guidepost questions that an organization can use – most won’t – to achieve peak safety performance. These elements have proven to be universal, as they apply across multiple business sectors (manufacturing, service, health care, transportation, profit and nonprofit), and bridge the vast differences in geography, culture and language.

The following are the guidepost questions, along with a Universal Model of Safety Excellence (with best-practice citations) identifying what safety excellence companies do to:

  • Clarify their vision.
  • Establish their values.
  • Demonstrate their leadership.
  • Align their organizations.
  • Build trusting relationships.
  • Communicate performance expectations.
  • Measure what matters.
  • Deliver consequences that drive desired behavior and results.

Element 1 – A Vision of Excellence – A clear, highly detailed word/graphic/image describing what a safe organization will look, sound, act and feel like at a future point in time.

Question of excellence for vision: Have we made our expectations for – and commitment to – safe operations perfectly clear to all in the organization?

Quote: “I’ll see it, when I believe it!” – Joel Barker, futurist, “The Power of Vision”
Employees perform safely when the destination (vision) and road map (strategy) to safety excellence are clearly defined, depicted and communicated. Excellence managers craft and communicate a vision of safety excellence.

Alcoa – At Alcoa, “True North” refers to its core values and vision of excellence, and in safety that means more than zero injuries. The True North concept means forward thinking – “thinking as far ahead as you can think, and then thinking further.” Past CEO Paul O’Neill believed: “The absence of accidents does not in any way confirm the presence of safety.” According to William O’Rourke, vice president of safety, his job is to find out how the company can improve further. “We have to go past zero,” he says. “We have to send employees home healthier than when they came into work.” 1

Calpine Corp. – At Calpine, leaders make their safety vision up close and personal by putting senior managers in front of video cameras to capture first-hand their unrehearsed core beliefs and convictions about safety for sharing with employees and the public. “We did 22, 30-minute interviews, and ended up with 11 hours of video which we cut down to 13 minutes,” recalls Kyle Dotson, vice president of corporate safety. “I told them it was a candid discussion to get their thoughts and feelings about safety and health in the workplace.” Each executive got to say what he or she wanted to communicate. Nothing was taken out of context. The depth of feeling people had for safety surprised us.” 2

Element 2 – Values of Excellence – Those deeply held shared beliefs that define what’s really important in an organization – what people are willing to go to the mat for!

Question of excellence for values: Have we adequately identified, defined and communicated a set of core values and guiding principles that will guide us to operational safety excellence?

Quote: “Your actions are a moving picture of your beliefs.” – Don Eckenfelder, “Values-Driven Safety”

Employees perform safely when they believe that safety is important to their bosses, their futures and the success of the business. Excellence managers manage by values.

Levi Strauss – In his book “Super Chiefs,” author Robert Heller tells this story of how the power of a leader’s personal values drive success in an organization. At a worldwide management conference, Robert Haas, chairman of Levi Strauss & Co., read aloud an “Aspirations Statement” (vision/values) that he believed would guide the company to success. After reading this document, he proceeded to rip it up and toss the pieces into the air, acknowledging it was only paper. He then challenged all employees to seriously consider what kind of company they wanted Levi-Strauss to be and what values they felt would make it that way. He told them that if they came up with better ones, he’d follow those. The original aspirations were confirmed, and Levi-Strauss went on to be guided by them, improving its operational and financial performance multiple times over.3

Saint-Gobain – In order to manage by values, you first must have values. Bob Scherer, general manager of Saint-Gobain’s Granville, N.Y., performance materials plant, has documented 19 personal values that he believes will guide his organization to safety success. He personally meets with and discusses these core values with each new employee during orientation, and then continually reinforces these by conducting ongoing values affirmation meetings with various plant departments and employee groups.4

Element 3 – Leadership for Excellence – The willingness and ability of key individuals and groups in an organization to make critical decisions that challenge the status quo and inspire others to follow!

Question of excellence for leadership: Do our leadership decisions, actions and inactions consistently demonstrate our values and reinforce our commitment to SAFE operations?

Quote: “If you don’t have any skin in the game, you’re not in the game.” – Aussie rules football saying (thanks Kelvin Blackney)

Employees perform safely when leaders actively and consistently demonstrate that safety is important through their decisions, deeds and actions. Excellence managers are Safety VIPs (visible – involved – participative).

N.Y. Power Authority (NYPA) – At NYPA, President Eugene Zeltman shows up at safety meetings … all of them! Zeltman observes: “Safety requires a concerted effort by everyone, from union and nonunion workers to management … and most of all, me.” Zeltman attends all corporate safety committee meetings, which can last as long as 2 days. “Word has filtered down to employees that if the president attends the meetings, then safety must be important,” says Noel DesChamps, director of Power Generation Support Services at NYPA.5

Element 4 – Integration for Excellence – The design and alignment of key roles, responsibilities and working relationships that focus people on shared mission, collaboration and shared rewards for achieving safe performance.

Question of excellence for organization: Have we designed and aligned roles, responsibilities and relationships so that collaboration toward common goals is integral to our processes, practices and rewards?

Quote: “Every organization is uniquely designed to exactly produce the results it achieves.” – Peter Senge

Employees perform safely when roles, responsibilities and relationships are clearly defined and aligned in an organization, making “safe” how work is done, not a program. Excellence managers build safety as a process, not a program.

MeadWestvaco – Safety at MeadWestvaco starts at the top, with a senior leadership team, comprised of the CEO and chairman, president, CFO, senior vice presidents, senior-level managers and the EHS vice president. The next level is the SH&E Leadership Council, which includes corporate and facility heads of EHS departments as well as other corporate departments, and representatives from each division of the company. This team establishes policies and provides general oversight over EHS matters. Lastly, sub-network teams include safety, health and environmental professionals from throughout the company who work to implement changes within their function and to engage in information sharing with the company’s employees.

“The results bubble back up to the SH&E Leadership Council, then go to the leadership team. The process allows us to align SH&E goals with company goals,” says Finn Schefstad, vice president of safety.6

Union Pacific Railroad – “Safety at Union Pacific is a process rather than a series of programs,” says Steve Kenyon, general manager, safety. “We treat safety just as we would treat a business. Every work unit – be it a shop, an office or a track gang – must have the safety process as part of its business plan.”

“The emphasis is on managerial as well as personal responsibility,” says Dennis Duffy, executive vice president-operations, who leads one of two teams of senior managers that comprise the SHEOP (Safety, Health, Environmental and Operating Practices) Committee. The SHEOP Committee plans, directs and monitors – through visits to field sites – and adjusts the overall safety processes. The work units, however, have authority to develop and manage their own safety action plans. Determining those plans and acting on them is primarily the responsibility of the work unit’s management, working with safety captains and safety committees. Both are crucial components of UP’s overall safety structure.7

Element 5 – Human Relationships for Excellence – Policies, procedures and practices that respect and place a high value on people and strengthen the bonds between employees and the organization.

Question of excellence for human relationships: Are our policies, procedures and practices founded upon mutual trust and respect, or do we require people to sign off on receipt of rules (to satisfy lawyers), and then make them pee in a jar?

Quote: “People just want their rights until you trample all over them … then they want revenge.” – Phillip Crosby, “Quality is Free”

Employees perform safely when they trust and feel empowered by their leaders. Excellence managers gain trust the old-fashioned way.

Johnson & Johnson (J&J) – At J&J, safety is embodied in its credo – its guiding principles of business success. Sixty years ago, Johnson & Johnson published a statement declaring working conditions must be “clean, orderly and safe.” The company continues to stand by that credo for 108,300 employees at its facilities in the United Sates and in 54 countries around the world. The second paragraph of the credo is very specific with respect to employees. It states, “We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world. Everyone must be considered as an individual. We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit. They must have a sense of security in their jobs. Compensation must be fair and adequate, and working conditions clean, orderly and safe.”

“Safety and health are our highest values,” says Joseph Van Houten, Ph.D., CSP, worldwide director of planning, process design and delivery, J&J Safety and Industrial Hygiene. “The ambitious objectives of profits, sales and production do not in any way diminish the importance the company places on safety as a measure of excellence.” 8

Dow Chemical – In my safety excellence facilitations, I frequently ask two important questions: “What is the difference between managing and leading?” and “What is the common denominator of both?” The common denominator is power. Managers have power of position (granted from above), while leaders have power of influence (earned from below), and what often defines the difference in performance between excellence companies and all the rest is how it is used.

Managers hold power. Manglers (not a typo) abuse power. And leaders freely give power by empowering others. In his presentation “Empowering High Performance at Dow Chemical” at the 2004 American Society of Safety Engineers’ Symposium on World-Class Safety, Donald Jones Sr., Dow’s vice president of safety, presented some convincing results. Using total incident rate (TIR) as a metric, those Dow facilities that had not yet embraced empowerment (manager-directed) generated incident rates averaging 4.47. Those plants that had achieved Stage 1 status (partial implementation) had average rates of 1.16. And those facilities that had accomplished Stage 2 (full implementation) had an average incident rate of .62. Excellence companies perceive people as the solution, not the problem. Power to the people … and profits to shareholders.9

Element 6 – Communication for Excellence – Messaging systems and practices that assure timely dissemination of information, and unfiltered flow of feedback that allows for the discovery of hidden truths within an organization.

Question of excellence for communications: Have we created adequate messaging and information systems (and practices) that facilitate (SAFE) decision-making and support effective problem solving in our organization?

Quote: “Employees are in the best position to prevent loss,but they need open channels to share their ideas.” – Tillinghast-Towers Perrin WC Study

Employees perform safely when communication systems and practices clearly establish expectations, provide timely information and allow undistorted feedback. Excellence managers communicate openly and effectively.

Sempra Energy Utilities – The Sempra Energy safety staff, guided by Jim Noon, Diane Kenney and Diane Mann and Sempra’s senior leadership team, host annual safety congresses for both their SDG&E and SoCal Gas managers, safety support staff and safety committee members (champions). The full-day agenda of each congress consists of best-practice technical sessions developed by employees and open dialogue sessions with members of the senior management team. Sempra recognizes that direct, undistorted face-to-face time and accountable communication not only looks good, but also works best.10

Steelcase Inc. – Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Steelcase Inc. sends a very clear message that safety is not a competitive advantage for its organization. It is a “collaborative advantage.” Steelcase believes that health and safety is so important to its organization that the company dedicates a full day each year communicating that importance at a safety conference for all managers. In 2004, recognizing an opportunity to further spread the word, Steelcase expanded its invitation to include vendors, service providers, members of the local business and professional safety community and its competitors – but “no cameras, please.”

Element 7 – Measurement for Excellence – The key metrics that communicate: What’s really important in an organization; whether you’re winning or losing the game; and, ultimately, if you’ll stay in the game!

Question of excellence for measurement: Are we gaining knowledge by measuring what matters, or are we fueling ignorance by encouraging injury and illness rates that defer reporting, distort truth and impede prevention?

Quote: “Numbers are numbers. Numbers are not knowledge.” – W. Edwards Deming
Employees perform safely when the metrics upon which they are measured make safety important to the business, and a key factor in their performance rating. Excellence managers measure what matters and value what counts.

Proctor & Gamble (P&G) – P&G, under past leadership of Rick Fulweiler, transformed the EHS function from a cost center to a profit center by defining safety’s contribution to the bottom line. The EHS function identifies industry average incident rates for their operations using BLS data, and tracks the average cost of lost-time and recordable incidents using industry cost data. They then calculate – using a formula of the number of accidents prevented times the average cost/incident saved – and identify how much was saved and thereby dropped to the bottom line as margin contribution. P&G knows that safety pays.

Active Agenda Inc. – In a past life, Dan Zahlis, president of Active Agenda Inc., was the Western Region risk manager for the Häagen-Dazs Co. He developed what he refers to as “the ultimate metric of safety.” Instead of measuring recordable rates, which created an atmosphere of fear and underreporting, he measured and rewarded total cost per incident. He calculated that number by dividing total injury costs by the total of all incidents (near misses, first aid, medical-only and lost time and restricted). By the design of this metric, the only way the operation could truly improve was to either drive down injury costs (by managing people better) or drive up incidents reported (to learn more about risks). Encouraging truth removed the veil of fear, and dramatically reduced the division’s total Injury costs. (Editor’s Note: Active Agenda is an open-source, risk management technology project. Turn to page 21 for further information.)

Element 8 – Consequences for Excellence – Performance management systems and practices that effectively recognize, respond and reinforce desired (safe) decisions, actions and behaviors at all levels of an organization.

Question of excellence for consequence delivery: Do we systemically recognize, reinforce and reward safe behavior equal to all other parameters of operational performance?

Quote: “You simply cannot manage yourself out of problems you behave yourself into.” – Stephen Covey, “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People"

Employees perform safely when significant and meaningful consequences (positive and negative) attach to their (safety) performance and rewards. Excellence managers deliver consequences – positive and negative – consistently and effectively.

Bronson Healthcare Group – Bronson, in Kalamazoo, Mich., asks all managers to write 12 thank-you notes per quarter and to show them to their own managers as proof that they indeed recognize their employees. Additionally, human resources does random spot-checks on managers, asking to see copies of thank-you notes. If a manager doesn’t have them, he or she is asked to schedule a “little talk” with the senior leader of the group. They’ve never had to schedule more than one talk before managers quickly got the message that the organization was serious about this activity.11

Haynes International Inc. – President Francis Petro believes in commitment with accountability. “Every single manager is evaluated first on safety before anything else, and that is written and documented. When there’s an accident, a spill or an environmental release, managers must call my office immediately and provide written documentation within 24 hours,” he says.

Petro also reinforces that accountability through discipline. He has placed managers on probation or given them time off without pay and disciplined foreman and supervisors for not following safety procedures. “If you ever, ever, ever put production before safety here, you won’t be employed here,” says Petro. “We tell people safety is not a policy. That you have to behave it, think it, breathe it and act safely all the time. It has to be in every aspect of what you do. You have to be tenacious. Every place I go, everything I do, I start the conversation with safety.” 12

To achieve peak safety performance, we must manage beyond programs that evade the good reasons for poor performance and address the systemic elements of excellence that determine what’s really important, and, ultimately, how work gets done – safe versus unsafe – in an organization. We must manage the system for excellence.

Sidebar: The Good Reasons for Poor Safety Performance

  • Unclear Vision – Destination (safe?) and expectations unclear.
  • Weak Values – Policy compromised by actions.
  • Poor Leadership – Absence of involvement; responsibilities abdicated.
  • Faulty Organization – Competing agendas; sub-optimizing objectives.
  • Poor Human Relationships – People not respected or valued; low trust.
  • Inadequate Communications – Failure to share timely information and accept objective feedback.
  • Inaccurate Measurement – A focus on reducing numbers rather than on gaining knowledge.
  • Lack of Consequences – Failure to consistently deliver consequences (positive and negative) for behaviors.

Larry L. Hansen, CSP, ARM, is principal of L2H Speaking of Safety Inc., a safety excellence facilitation company. He is creator/author of the “Architecture of Safety Excellence,” a work identifying and aligning the advanced strategies of excellence, and of “ROC Your Organization: Fifty-Two Ways to Instigate Radical Organizational Change for Safety Excellence,” a guide to contra-thinking in the safety profession. He can be reached at (315) 383-3801 or via email at LLHSOS@dreamscape.com. To order copies of “A Universal Model for Safety ‘X’-cellence,” a compendium of insights, process models, essays and published works exploring eight key elements of excellence that comprise and drive world-class safety performance, visit http://www.L2HSOS.com.

REFERENCES
1,5 Atkinson, William, and Smith, Sandy, “America’s Safest Companies,” Occupational Hazards, Penton Media Inc., September 2002.
2 Smith, Sandy, “America’s Safest Companies Share a Passion for Safety,” Occupational Hazards, Penton Media Inc., October 2005.
3 Heller, Robert, “Super Chiefs,” Truman Talley Books/Dutton, New York, 1992.
4 Scherer, Bob, “Saint-Gobain Performance Materials,” presentation at Business Excellence Conference, October 2005.
5,6,8,12 Smith, Sandy, “America’s Safest Companies,” Occupational Hazards, Penton Media Inc., September 2003.
7 Smith, Sandy, “America’s Safest Companies,” Occupational Hazards, Penton Media Inc., October 2005
8 Deming, W. Edwards, “Quality, Productivity, and Competitive Position,” Cambridge, Mass., MIT Center for Advanced Engineering, 1982.
9 Jones, Donald S., “Empowering High Performance at Dow Chemical,” presentation at American Society of Safety Engineers Symposium on World-Class Safety, New Orleans, March 2004.
10 Sempra Energy Utilities, SoCal Gas 2005 Safety Congress, Compton, Calif.
11Nelson, Bob (The Guru of Thank You), Web site resources and posted articles (http://www.nelson-motivation.com).