I began to get deeply involved in helping organizations achieve safety culture excellence back in the 1980s. At that point in my career, I was in charge of manufacturing engineering for a Fortune 20 company. One of the facilities experienced a fatality which in turn led to a serious corporate wide safety initiative. Within a week of the tragedy, I was assigned responsibility for the safety of about 10,000 manufacturing employees who worked at 40 plants scattered across America. The organization ran an average recordable rate in the 20’s and had no real safety focus. Production was king as measured by cost, quality and customer service upstream indicators.
After some research we hired a famous safety consultant, Dr. Dan Petersen. For three years Dan and our team lived on the road developing a safety culture excellence model that quickly delivered a corporate wide average recordable rate of about 1.2. We were all very happy with a safety accountability culture that worked well across the entire nation.
And then everyone went back to their “normal day job.” After all, we were convinced we had achieved “mission accomplished” and I left the company for other, greener pastures, so to speak. Some years later, after presenting the success story at a safety conference, the current safety manager for the organization stopped me to discuss his current reality. It turns out that five years after we all celebrated how good we were, the whole organization was back at a 20 recordable rate. The new safety culture stuck for a short while after the resources were reallocated to the ever dominant production culture and then collapsed.
My lesson from this: you must never declare victory. The relentless pursuit of zero has to be relentless. If we back off, the second law of thermodynamics effect seems to take over and the whole system degrades. And you know this is exactly what our production culture counterparts have learned. We all must keep the push for excellence alive. To quote Yoda; “There is no try, only do.” We must stay engaged.