An Example of (Safety) Leadership Success: Creating a Learning Culture

Safety is our number one priority is a nice slogan, but the systems, processes, and management strategies happening inside an organization communicate what’s most important. This fifth blog is dedicated to highlighting one leader’s example of safety leadership success: Pat helped his organization move from a management-by-exception approach to a learning culture.

In Pat’s industry, the use of discipline was (and still is in some organizations) a common approach when it comes to safety. Pat is a senior leader in an organization where the use of exception management (i.e., discipline) had a long history of refinement and leaders were excellent at it. However, this had led to a very predictable outcome. Their safety results and the organization’s culture were not where the organization wanted them to be. That all changed after Pat was exposed to behavioral science through ADI’s Safety Leadership Process

Pat found that making a fundamental shift in his and the organization’s view on how to manage safe production was required if they were to move towards the kind of safety culture they wanted. Pat knew this change would be difficult for both him and the organization. But it was a change they would need to make, and that he (and other senior leaders) would need to drive. To incorporate what he learned from ADI’s Safety Leadership Process, Pat targets three critical behaviors to help drive the organizational change:

Shifted focus towards desired behaviors. Pat and the rest of the leaders made a deliberate shift in looking for and delivering positive feedback for critical safe behaviors. While any at-risk behaviors still warranted constructive feedback, the team purposefully increased their use of positive reinforcement for behaviors that led to safe production. This was a 180 degree turn for many leaders who had become excellent at identifying and “dealing with” errors. The implementation of the Safety Leadership Process meant leaders met weekly to discuss successful examples of positive feedback for sharing and learning purposes. This helped the leadership team get better at noticing and providing effective positive feedback for behaviors that drove safe production. 

Taking a systems view. Behavior science taught Pat that people behave in the context of their environment. Organizational systems and processes work as designed, and leadership practices actively influence what people do when they are working. If undesired behaviors are seen, a systems view tells us to look for poorly designed systems, processes, or work environments as causal factors instead of old-school, blame-the-performer tactics often seen when people do not have a scientific understanding of behavior. Pat began to look at the systems and processes surrounding safe-production and realized many of the audit and observation processes were designed to encourage error hunting instead of recognizing and coaching desired behaviors. Pat and his team adjusted processes, improved systems, changed how work was designed. and improved the processes surrounding safety management to align these systems with the new focus on recognizing safe behaviors. 

Establish learning as a goal. One significant change was the removal of automatic discipline related to at-risk behaviors, near-misses, and incident investigations. Pat realized the discipline processes in place were largely ineffective for reducing at-risk behaviors. Instead, they were driving down accurate reporting, creating an us vs them culture, and teaching people to fear leadership. Pat’s organization made a fundamental shift to move towards a learning culture from incidents and near-misses. This did not remove all responsibility from the worker. But instead put the worker(s) and management on the same team, where learning and mitigating future incidents became the goal. Removing discipline created more honesty and better identification of systems root causes that were actively encouraging at-risk behaviors. With better identification came improved systematic changes to address the barriers to safe production workers were facing.

The implementation of these three critical behaviors for Pat and the other leaders in the organization were significant steps in what it takes to develop a high-performing safety culture. Pat found that his interactions and relationships with employees were better, the organization was able to create safer working environments, and safe production improved. Any leader or organization who wants to improve safe production should consider emulating these critical behaviors. 

Posted by Bryan Shelton

Bryan applies his knowledge and expertise in strategic planning to help organizations align employee performance with company goals. Bryan helps clients create improvement across a variety of business metrics including company growth, profitability, customer service, vision alignment, leadership development, and culture change. He also helps clients implement process improvement initiatives, improve sales results and using performance-pay systems to help drive company results. His behavior-based approaches and applications have supported clients’ improvement initiatives, leadership development, and the design and implementation of performance pay systems.