Monday, May 16, 2011

Climate vs. Culture: Developing a permanent, excellent safety culture

Most organizations struggle with the dynamic of Climate vs. Culture in safety. To better understand this active issue in our work force – and our away from work reality – what is Climate? And what is Culture?


First a look at Culture – it is like the underlying forceful river that keeps rolling along day in and day out. Changing the direction of this strong guiding reality of an organization is very difficult. After all, we are trying to attack years and years of “We’ve always done it this way.” This river is made up of the ideas, beliefs and attitudes of your people that are firmly entrenched. All these combine into solid immoveable “norms” that individually make up the Culture.

Climate is more like “flavor of the month” sand castles that don’t stand a chance against the mighty Culture River. New Climate that comes in with new employees is quickly washed away by peer pressure. New ideas, beliefs and attitudes (both good and bad) are erased by the local “norm” that resists change.

Do people resist change? The answer is “no”…….that is as long as someone else other than “yours truly” has to change! So a better answer is individuals and groups and organizations all have their own Cultures – and they all greatly resist change.

Culture(S)? Many Cultures exist in the body – safety, production, quality, camaraderie, etc.

How do we go about changing the mighty Culture River? The sand of “flavors of the month” have little or no permanence. Rock solid principles, with strength of character, combined with commitment to long term engagement are absolute musts when it comes to Culture change. The leadership that desires to deliver Culture change must be committed to long term “Authentic Involvement.” This needs to be an involvement that engages personnel at all levels of the organization in what is viewed as (believed to be) a worthwhile effort to an agreed upon goal.

How does leadership determine what the shared needs, goals and visions are for their organization? One way is for upper management to huddle together, discuss, decide and issue a decision (edict). This short term approach that does not involve the vast majority of the employees is doomed to long term failure. Authentic Involvement requires participation from all levels of the group in question if the desired Culture change is to occur (and not be swept away as another ineffective management dictated flavor of the month).

In the safety world there are many kinds of data available to help solidify agreement across your extended family of employees. The obvious deal with “downstream indicators” or the injury, incident and near miss items we have seen so often, for so long. This reactive approach is not enough to launch a lasting Culture change. The downstream data just does not provide a clue as to what is wrong with the Culture or how to attack the malaise that exists. In conjunction with downstream data that indicates a need to change (improve) there needs to be material on what and where the Culture issues exist.

We need to find out what is going on “between the ears” of our people who are generating the downstream incident data. A good way to do this is by having your organization take a valid safety Culture survey. The best I have seen to date is the survey developed by Dr. Dan Petersen and Dr. Chuck Bailey. In this survey all levels of the organization give their truth on questions that have been statistically validated to make a difference in downstream safety performance. In turn, the questions on this survey “map” to fundamental safety processes that likewise are proven to make a difference in downstream safety performance across all of your organization.

This viable information about the state of the safety Culture is then provided to continuous improvement teams. The teams are trained in how to solve culture issues using a series of non-mathematical tools that assist in problem resolution. To ensure “Authentic Involvement,” all teams have a cross section of employees from various levels of the organization. Team members decide which survey questions and processes to tackle. They then engage in a systematic approach to problem resolution. The team functions along the lines of those that have been proven to be effective by similar teams involved with quality, production and customer service issues.

Why does such an approach work to achieve the difficult task of changing the mighty safety Culture River? There are a number of reasons. And these all boil down to: all people from all levels of the organization being actively involved in:


• Determining what the real underlying Culture issues are via the safety perception survey

• Deciding what Culture issues to work on

• Resolving the agreed upon issues

• Training others in the solutions to these issues

• Auditing the results of the team developed solutions

And in the end, continually deciding on what to do next as they engage in a relentless pursuit of a zero incident safety culture with a rock solid approach that is able to overcome the mighty safety Culture River that does, and will, resist change

The Doc

Authentic Involvement, Dan Petersen, NSC Press, 2001, ISBN 0-87912-232-3

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