Too Lean for Safety

It is an understatement to say that many organizations are running lean. The trend worsened during the pandemic and the current economic uncertainty seems destined to make matters even worse. While the business case for lean operations is compelling, there is such a thing as too lean, especially when it comes to safety. But how can you tell if you are too lean for safety? Waiting for a rash of incidents or a SIF event is obviously not a good strategy but by default, that is what some organizations are doing.

Despite a push on the part of safety people to move organizations toward leading indicators as metrics of safety, most still rely heavily and/or exclusively on lagging indicators. As discussed elsewhere (, this is problematic in many ways, one of which is that lagging indicators can be misleading. If an organization has run lean for a year or more and not had an increase in incident rate, that may be interpreted as a green light for continuing to run lean, or further reduce staff. But incident rate can be an unreliable metric. A company can go years without a lost-time incident despite unsafe practices. Luck and/or underreporting can make the numbers look good and lead to the assumption that safety is better than it really is. A more reliable measure of whether a company is too lean is to identify and measure preventative behaviors and monitor whether those are happening consistently. In our experience, too many leaders (frontline supervisors in particular) are stretched so thin, they have little if any time to have meaningful safety interactions with their direct reports around hazard identification, addressing unsafe conditions, removing barriers to safe behavior, etc. It is impossible to manage safety effectively if leaders don’t have time to regularly and proactively interact with direct reports about safety. To assume you can is to adopt a reactive approach to safety—which is effectively going backwards.

Optimal safety cultures are those where leaders at every level discuss proactive safety activities with direct reports on a daily and/or weekly basis. Accountability for prevention is essential. Without it, busy leaders will inevitably put safety on the back burner as they attend to more pressing operational matters. While the ultimate goal is for safety to be integrated into everything employees do, very few companies have reached that level, and getting there requires deliberate effort. When people are overwhelmed because there are not enough employees, they will attend to those things with the most pressing deadlines and/or accountabilities. Safety has always struggled to compete with production, quality, and customer service, and running leaner and leaner only exacerbates it. 

If you don’t have preventative leading indicators to guide your decisions about whether you are safely lean, a quick test is to spot check the frequency and quality of safety interactions, particularly between frontline supervisors and their direct reports. Infrequent, reactive interactions are a sign that something needs to change. It could be that there isn’t accountability for such interactions or it could be that supervisors simply can’t keep up. Running lean has its costs. Don’t let safety pay the price.

Posted by Judy Agnew, Ph.D.

As senior vice president of safety solutions, Judy spends her time helping clients create sustainable safety cultures. She also helps clients with strategy execution beyond safety, and general management and leadership improvement across cultural and generational differences.