Culture plays a crucial role in a company’s safety performance, yet most people have a hard time explaining in practical terms what culture is.
And that’s one of the reasons why companies struggle to change their safety culture.
“Culture is bigger than safety culture,” said Michael Allen of The RAD Group. “Culture is wide-reaching, it’s ill-defined and it’s overused. Do you think that people form this idea of culture far too freely and they don’t have a clue what that word means? In your business sometime in the last six months, has someone blamed an event, whether it was a safety event or some other failure, on ‘just our culture’? Or maybe they said, ‘That’s just how we do things around here.’ ”
In his presentation, “The Culture of Safety,” Allen said culture varies from one environment to the next. It’s big, small, and overlapping. It’s geographical, industry-wide, company-wide, and can be a company subculture (or “co-culture”).
“It’s like the water we swim in,” he said. “We do not normally think about it. We do not normally notice its influence. It’s the ‘unwritten rules’ that determine success—rules and standards we follow to ‘get by’ in the organization, but which aren’t formal or even spoken about. It’s taken-for-granted behaviors—things that we do without considering whether they are right, wrong, proper or improper.
“As a concept, it is often confusing and nebulous. If we can understand the mechanisms that drive it, we can make adjustments.”
Where does culture come from? It is the product of our brains doing what they always do:
“Our brains figure out a way of doing things that works in a given situation. Our brains our continually trying to solve these two problems: How do I fit in? How do I achieve my goals?
“Leaders play a special role in where they allocate resources, who they promote/demote and why, who they recognize/criticize/reprimand and why, what values and expectations they informally communicate, and what values and expectations they informally model.”
“Our brains then automate the efforts that work within a given context. These become our ‘taken-for-granted’ behaviors.
“How does culture change? When the context changes, the automatic way doesn’t work anymore. When the automatic way doesn’t work anymore, the brain wakes up and finds a new way that works.
“When the new way works, the brain automates it. The new way becomes the ‘taken-for-granted’ way of doing things. Change the context and you change culture.”
He said there are some pitfalls to avoid in shifting your culture:
• Overestimating the effects of formal value statements.
• Overestimating the effects of one-time efforts.
• Being vague about the attributes of your desired culture.
There are four steps:
• Identify the attributes of your desired culture.
“What do you want your company to look like? Don’t get carried away. Settle on two or three that are key to safety improvement. For example, ‘We openly communicate about problems, failures, and issues that might affect safety.’ ”
• Identify the ‘taken-for-granted’ behaviors that would exemplify each attribute of your desired culture.
“So back to our example. We want people to openly communicate about issues. ‘Taken-for-granted’ behavior is something we want people to do, so we say something to that person. Would you want people to do that? Of course you would. We would want that to be one of the behaviors of people without even thinking about it. In 2010, my company did some research on observation programs. Observation programs are where people see something that’s safe or unsafe, and they document it and turn it in, and it’s supposed to change something. We had some companies come to us and say, ‘Observation programs aren’t very good. People are turning in cards, and we think they’re made up. We were giving them a bunch of rewards and they were making things up. We want to know why the observation programs aren’t working.’ We found something much bigger than observation programs: People were not saying anything when they saw a guy working 50 feet off the ground and he wasn’t tied up. So we started this research program in 10 countries in nine languages involving 16,000 people. We found that people speak up 39.3% of the time when they see something unsafe.”
• Analyze the context to identify things that inhibit and encourage these behaviors.
“People had defensive confrontations because they didn’t know how to speak up properly. When they did speak up, they didn’t know how to deal with irritation. Another reason is what we call a difference of authority. They won’t speak up if the boss is there.”
• Change the context so that it makes sense from the employee’s point-at-view to adopt these behaviors.
“For example, make each behavior easier, important, and instrumental to individual and team success. If you are a leader, pay close attention to ‘Leaders’ Culture Embedding Mechanisms.’ ”
Allen said the vast majority of human beings are good, decent, and honest people who want to do a good job, want to keep their job, care about quality, care about safety, and do what seems to make sense to them.
“Only people with a different context look at it and say, ‘What an idiot that person is—how can they do something that stupid?’ ” he said. “Well, they have a different context. If you had the same context, you’d have done the same thing. So understand context, understand why they do it, understand how you can change it, and you change the culture. It simply is that simple.” ♦
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