Keynote Speaker - Questions and Answers

Safety Forum 2015

How do you maintain a good safety culture once it is at a high level?

Actually, maintaining an organization’s culture is much easier than changing it. To understand why this is so, consider the definition of organizational culture. Perhaps the most complete definition comes from Edgar Schein, who is one of the field’s most influential scholars.

  • Organizational culture “is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems that has worked well enough to be considered valid and is passed on to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

Because members of the organization teach each other what is correct and what is not, a culture, especially a strong one, actually sustains itself.

Furthermore, let’s consider how culture is created in the first place. As Schein describes it, culture is a set of beliefs and assumptions. As individuals in an organization go through their daily activities, they are confronted with different situations. In those situations, they act according to their beliefs and assumptions. Those actions result in some consequence that either validates or undermines the original belief or assumption. Thus, the “system of consequences” perpetuates the existing culture.

Keeping that in mind, how can leaders change culture?  We can’t make anyone believe anything. We can’t force them to behave in a certain way. However, we can change the system of consequences. Therefore, to change culture leaders must implement systems that reward the desired behaviours and discourage the wrong behaviours. If leaders have created a strong culture that values safety by rewarding the right behaviours, that culture will be in place as long as that reward system remains in tact. If they start rewarding different behaviours (i.e. taking shortcuts) then the culture will gradually change.

How do you "sell" organizations on management system simplicity when they have spent years making them complex?

A very useful model for helping convince anyone to take a proposed course of action is the Human Action Model, first described by Ludwig von Mises. This model says that for a human to take action, three conditions must be met:

  1. There must be a felt sense of unease with the current state
  2. There must be a vision of a better state
  3. There must be a belief that the proposed action will move the person from the current state to the better state

So, if you want senior leaders to act in simplifying the existing management system. You must satisfy each of these three conditions.  Here are some suggestions for how to accomplish that.

  1. Create a sense of unease
    • Demonstrate the impact of growing complexity on risk and cost. Use illustrations such as those provided during the keynote speech at the safety forum.
    • Help them understand the cost of the current, complex system. Let’s face it—shareholders and executives understand cost. By quantifying the cost of the existing management system, you can help them “feel” the impacts of its waste. When quantifying the cost, consider the costs of duplicate/redundant organizational structures, audit programs, documentation, and other processes/procedures.
  2. Vision of a better state—use case studies that show how companies that have simplified their management systems have been able to outperform their peers. The U.S. Nuclear Navy and Chevron are good examples of this.
  3. Belief that the proposed action will improve the current condition—create a clear and easy to understand roadmap for how the management system will be simplified. Often executives will acknowledge that the existing management system is overly complex, but they may feel it is just too unwieldy to change. If you can provide them with a roadmap it will help them see the tangible steps that can be taken to simplify the system.

What elements of safety culture provide regular feedback to all stakeholders that you are continuously focused on the right things, and can be seen to be improving aside from safety surveys, or lagging indicators?

It is difficult, and often impractical, to measure an organization’s shared values, beliefs, and assumptions (often people aren’t even fully aware of their true beliefs and assumptions). While this can be done to some extent through surveys, surveys are typically only useful for establishing a baseline, or measuring progress after some period of time. It is however possible to measure the actions and behaviours that result from the organization’s shared values, beliefs, and assumptions. For instance, if employees value following procedures and believe they should not take shortcuts, then there will be very few instances of unapproved deviations. Therefore, measuring and monitoring unapproved deviations can be a good indicator of the underlying culture around procedures. Similarly, if an organization believes that questioning things that are out of the ordinary is important, you will see employees actively investigate and resolve alarms. Therefore, by measuring the number of bypassed alarms or operating limit excursions that have not been investigated, you can measure the degree to which employees believe it is important to question abnormal situations.

In order to accomplish this, the organization must first define what values, beliefs, and assumptions it believes are necessary to achieve a high level of safety performance (or any performance outcome for that matter). It must then translate those values and beliefs to corresponding actions and behaviours. In other words, if I believe X and Y, and am confronted with situation&nbnsp;Z, how do I expect someone to behave or act. You can then put processes in place to measure and monitor those behaviours and actions.

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