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Optimizing Your Behavior-Based Safety Investment

The CEO of a large manufacturing firm was delighted to hear the data resulting from the plant's behavior-based safety (BBS) initiative. The 40 percent reduction in reportable incidents within six months reflected incredible savings attributed to reduced lost time, minimal down time, and decreased Worker's Compensation costs, not to mention the payoffs of an involved, enthused and safer workforce. He enjoyed hearing about the many successes involved and joined in the company-wide celebration for reaching such a milestone. However, he couldn't help being somewhat distracted. The news of another load of rejected materials due to quality defects had dampened the occasion. If only he could find a means to address what was becoming an ongoing problem.

For decades businesses have approached workplace safety initiatives as separate from those operations that directly affect fiscal success. Such a view at least partially explains the management myopia of those who just don't seem to get it: BBS is a technology that addresses behaviors related to safety, but the same technology can easily transition to any other aspect of work that includes behavior.

In the past 10 years, tools derived from the science of Applied Behavior Analysis have proven their effectiveness in reducing injuries when included as a component of safety management systems. Because practitioners of BBS have observed that focusing on and reinforcing specific, critical behaviors has a significant impact on performance results, behavior-based safety has made a measurable impact on the safety of workers in North America and is rapidly becoming a global initiative. The question is, "If we can identify and change key behaviors related to safety performance, then why not use the same technology to identify and change behaviors that influence a broader range of organizational performance variables?" The answer is that many company decision makers don't realize the same behavioral tools used in BBS readily transfer to all work-related human performance.

Though this reality has been pointed out at safety conferences, alluded to in BBS articles and sold as an integrated product by BBS consulting providers, most organizations using BBS have not developed a behavior-based systems approach for managing workplace performance.

Addressing the issues surrounding a behavior-based systems approach to managing human performance with available behavioral tools is important primarily because the effect of using these tools is as profound on other areas of workplace performance as it has been on worker injury rates. Interestingly, the successful application of behavior-based methods to overall organizational performance predates BBS by 15 years!

The behaviors important to quality, productivity and service are as easy to identify as at-risk behaviors in the safety environment. Changing behaviors that cause performance problems or adding behaviors that will enhance performance is no more difficult than working with safety-related behaviors. In fact, reliable data collected over the past 30 years indicates the application of behavioral strategies to business performance results in sustained improvements of 20 to 40 percent minimum. These data are consistent across all types of business and industry applications and translate into an incredible ROI for most organizations.

Behavioral tools offer business and industry the most readily available means for reaching performance potential and business objectives. Why are very few organizations integrating the behavioral tools of BBS into all management systems as a synergistic systems approach? After all, if they have established an infrastructure with BBS, they have already made 80 percent of the financial investment! I offer several reasons for this mysterious oversight along with some suggestions that may help interested organizations move forward.


We look to senior managers to govern the diverse territory of strategy and depend on them to exercise influence at the systems level. Yet, many executives in major corporations don't understand BBS at a level that allows them to envision the impact of integrating behavioral tools into all performance parameters. Instead, they see BBS as a "program" or initiative restricted to the safety environment.

Senior management is seldom presented with a structured, systematic view of the impact of applying the behavioral tools of BBS to other performance variables, nor are they informed how such an approach optimizes the investment already made in BBS. They are not advised about how that extension might look nor are they provided with projections regarding the short- and long-term financial impact of such an extension.

Safety Professionals

Safety professionals may not have a forum or opportunity to present the case for integrating behavioral tools into the organization's or business unit's total performance objectives. In some cases, organizational politics discourage safety professionals from crossing the boundaries of their specific mission.

Secondly, safety professionals may themselves be unclear about this topic. Therefore, many BBS providers do not provide their clients with a concrete plan that describes the when, what and how of extending behavioral tools into the broader performance arena.

Competing Initiatives

At any given time, most business units are implementing some type of improvement process. Unfortunately, when senior management introduces an initiative, it is usually carried out without the benefit of a thorough ROI analysis or any attempts to determine if its methods are consistent with principles and assumptions of previous initiatives. Eventually, people experience so many of these improvement initiatives that they eventually develop a justifiable skepticism of all new initiatives. The end result is businesses that have been deluged and disillusioned by performance improvement stand-alone "programs" that cannot be integrated into other management systems.

Uncertainty As previously noted, the most compelling reason that more companies don't optimize the behavioral tools of BBS is the lack of clarity about when, what, and how. Safety professionals need a specific, systematic description of this integration process complete with timeliness and resource needs. They must be equipped to assess and identify the exact targets and payoffs of a behavior-based systems approach to overall performance improvement.

The following points may provide managers and safety professionals with a clearer picture of the activities, resources and payoffs of expanding the BBS tools to address quality, productivity, service and other performance objectives.

When is a company ready to expand BBS tools to other performances?

A BBS initiative takes time to stabilize. Most processes stabilize between six months and one year from kickoff. Stabilization in this context means the processes and activities have become routine, most if not all training has been delivered and the consultants are, with the exception of an occasional follow-up visit, absent from the premises.

Also, the data should be steadily improving and safety professionals and managers should feel comfortable with the process. The most frequent barriers to stabilization revolve around senior management support. If safety is not a true value and priority, the senior management's actions and decisions will communicate that message rather quickly.

Organizations should use an evaluation index that factors leadership behavior, employee commitment and data movement to establish a hard measure of the status of a BBS process. Such tools give safety professionals a reliable data-driven method for appraising their BBS initiative.

What is the first step? When BBS is initiated in an organization, the safety data to be impacted and the subsequent financial impact are well known to the management group. In fact, much of the impetus for initiating BBS centers on established data regarding the cost of safety. For example, reduction in Worker's Compensation costs is a predictable outcome of BBS.

Similarly, a plant or business unit tracks performance variables that are key indicators of success or failure. Units produced, unit quality, on-time shipping, waste, cost per unit are easily identifiable as critical measures of success. Every business and industry employs a similar list of key results used to measure effectiveness.

The first step toward transitioning your behavioral tools and skills to focus on variables other than safety is to create a data-based presentation that describes the major performance outcomes to be targeted, the level of expected improvement and the dollars associated with those improvement targets.

This data-based impact analysis communicates the rewards associated with a behavior-based systems approach to performance improvement and provides the management and resource support necessary to move forward.

One element of the data analysis should include both direct and indirect projected resource costs. Extending your behavioral tools to overall performance will achieve results at least as dramatic as those obtained in safety. A sound and conservative projection is that each performance area will achieve from 10 to 20 percent improvement within six months after initiation of the process.

Since the additional training and time necessary for this process is a fraction of the costs of the original BBS installation, the ROI is impressive enough to grab the attention and the commitment of your organization's decision makers.

How do we proceed once the decision has been made?

Now that everyone is excited about the opportunity, it's time to develop a roll-out plan, provide the training upgrade and focus on the key performance outcomes. Organizations would be wise to consider using an outside resource with experience in applying behavioral tools across all organizational variables. The cost is miniscule compared to the original BBS investment and the company has already eliminated the long learning curve associated with starting from scratch.

A behavioral consultant can perform the training, coaching and process review necessary to get the behavior-based system up and running. Plus, the training is not as extensive as the original BBS training because the same tools will be used, only in a slightly different way. You will now be applying root cause and upstream analysis to a different kind of performance outcome. You will not have to do behavioral observations on others as with BBS, though some workers might be doing self-observations for key behaviors relative to quality, productivity or service.

As with BBS, performance feedback and data are extremely important. Positive reinforcement and celebrations should accompany progress and achievement. The language, principles and processes are almost exactly the same as with BBS so employees see this as an extension of something they are already doing rather than as a new and/or conflicting initiative. If you have BBS up and running successfully, the risks to extending those methods to other areas are almost non-existent. The hard work of teaching people about behavior and the importance of managing it is already complete. Now, you will simply apply the same strategies to different types of behavior. Front-line employees are usually the first to recognize the logic of evolving your BBS process and often informally and voluntarily apply it to other processes. Follow their lead and the performance improvement payoffs for your organization will be dramatic.Copyright 2008 Performance Management Publications/Aubrey Daniels InternationalAll Rights Reserved.

Published June 10, 2008