I was recently asked to comment on the perceived over use of the phrase ‘safety culture’ by Dave Johnson, Chief Editor of ISHN magazine. Here are my thoughts on this:
Dave, your editorial article on safety culture cliché is appropriately provocative. Your various editorial contributors reinforce the safety culture controversy with a wide spectrum of input. For this author/contributor every organization has its own spectrum of cultureS, with a simplified definition of culture being ‘just the way it is around here.’ A career of engagements with struggling organizations has shown me that numerous subcultures typically operate concurrently, influencing productivity, quality, customer service, safety, diversity, recruiting, etc.
This leads to a litany of politically correct descriptions of the various organizations’ subcultures, such as ‘safety is number one,’ etc., ad nausea. When we push through the PC fog and get to the front line of reality, each of these subcultures has its own dynamic of processes, accountabilities and priorities. In turn these are all influenced by corporate, regional, site and work group leadership. Unfortunately in this kind of spaghetti culture a fatality typically leads to a stand down with its temporarily high safety focus that in time fades back into leadership’s multi-cultural reality.
Sure, improving an organization’s safety culture (the way it is) is easier with genuine corporate backing. However, local and work group leadership determines the safety culture reality at the workface. The cultural reality is not determined by OSHA, BBS, policy statements, bulletin board postings, emails, PC rhetoric or the like. At the Gemba (where real work takes place) work group hourly and salaried leadership is the determining factor in safety culture reality. Upper management influences this, but the front line delivers reality in cost, quality, customer service, safety and so on. No matter what corporate speak says, in the equation of excellence for each of these subcultures, front-line leadership is the independent variable; the rest of the organization only has dependent variable influence. What gets measured and rewarded is what gets done in a culture. In safety if we focus on/measure what we don’t want to occur – injuries – there are no lasting solutions. This is just another culture built on a foundation of sand. A culture of excellence must measure and reward the upstream activities that deliver downstream results; safety accountabilities that make a real, value added difference in performance by all personnel from the board room to the front-line supervisor and hourly worker.