One of the universal questions in safety seems to be; “What role does upper management need to play?” These highly skilled people are busy helping their organizations succeed. There is seldom time for the addition of more tasks to dilute their efforts on “the really important things.” Like most of us, upper management personnel typically work inside their comfort zones of skill, passion and knowledge. Let’s face it, very few of them know much about what it takes to run a zero error (injury) safety culture. This topic is not taught in colleges and universities. OSHA, the elephant in the room, is only focused on conditions and regulations. Achieving safety cultural excellence is seldom more than a big ‘huh?’ when it comes to the top dogs in a typical organization.
A great pioneer of safety culture, Dr. Dan Petersen, spent 50+ years studying how to achieve safety culture excellence. One of his findings was ‘the six criteria of safety excellence.’ Number one in his list of six is “visible upper management commitment to safety.” Moving down one level, Dan’s second criteria is “active middle management involvement in safety.” This is partially explained by the fact that accountability for actions necessary for excellence flows up from the workforce where injuries and dangers are most predominant. Add to this the fact that upper management support is necessary if accountabilities are to be delivered on a regular basis. I guess this leads into one of Dan’s other words of wisdom-- “What gets measured is what gets done!”
But what data does management typically have with respect to safety? They get injury statistics; downstream indicators based on things they don’t want to have happen. This is radically different from the upstream indicators they get from other core functions. And what do downstream safety indicators tell them to do personally?
Nothing. There are no upper management accountabilities that go with the safety indicators which don’t give a hint as to cause or solution to the tragedies that are contained in injury statistics. Just like other core functions, we must manage by activities. These activities must involve accountabilities throughout the organization that have a positive effect at the workforce where quality, productivity and safety are first delivered. In turn, teams with salaried and hourly employee input are required to get these accountabilities correct. In essence the executives end up being responsible for delivering a certain quantity of quality value added activities in a timely matter as designed by the local subject matter experts (SME) who are doing the work.
Management’s part in achieving safety excellence then becomes an active, visible, supportive participation in developing and nurturing “a culture that just does not tolerate injuries.” Put all this together and two major factors of the problem with getting these highly talented upper managers to engage is that “they don’t know what they don’t know” and they seldom carve out any time to get the education and knowledge necessary to get themselves passionately engaged in an function in which they are so desperately needed. Once they take the time to gain the knowledge, I have never seen them do other than follow their heart which just naturally does not want anyone to get injured. Once this occurs their organization begins a journey to safety excellence that will not fail.
Engaging upper management in meaningful safety culture training is a need that unlocks the power that delivers the solution to an organization’s safety culture. This training goes way beyond level one regulations and level two observations which is about all that is ever taught to them. And so when I go into a new organization that wants ‘to get to zero’ I insist on a day of highly participative safety cultural excellence training for upper management. Just like the great quality pioneer, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, if the executives won’t carve out the time to learn why and how to get to a zero error culture, I decline the assignment and move on to an organization that can provide executives who will invest a day to find out what they do not know and then do something about it.
It’s not the words, it’s the message lived by the actions of senior management.