Not Sure What to Improve First? Start with Safety - Improving Leadership

Not Sure What to Improve First? Start with Safety


While driving through town this weekend, I smiled as I passed a local school preparing for a fun event for their students. My smile quickly faded as I noticed an unassuming line of orange cones. Thoughts of a tragic accident that occurred in the past year at that intersection flooded my mind.

I imagined the difficult conversations that must have occurred in the wake of the accident. The second guessing. The questions of what could have been done to prevent it from happening. What should be done to prevent any future recurrences? The cones were no doubt placed there as a result of these discussions.

While I appreciate the efforts made to prevent future accidents, I have one question that I can’t get out of my head: Why did a tragic accident have to happen before any changes were made?

It’s hard to fault anyone in particular for this tragedy because this type of situation happens all too often in life. We take unnecessary risks or ignore unsafe conditions rather than addressing them. This could be because we have convinced ourselves that the risk is not that great, or that we just don’t take the time to think about what could go wrong.

Most of the time, things work out fine. The risks don’t materialize and life goes on normally. Over time, repeated cycles of lucky results lead to us downplaying the risks involved. Eventually, we stop even looking for the risks, at least until the unthinkable actually happens.

My kids are masters at this. They don’t have any qualms about jumping on a trampoline with sharp objects or flinging toys across a room with their eyes closed. What could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, when nothing does go wrong, they see that as justification that there was nothing wrong with their plan. “I didn’t get hurt,” is their favorite phrase to use when I question their decision-making.

While they do get lucky more often than not, it is still my job as their parent to address risky behaviors when I see them and teach them to make wiser decisions. If I don’t do this, then I am ultimately responsible if they get hurt.

As leaders, we are similarly responsible for maintaining safety in our organizations. Unfortunately, as a collective group, we don’t have a very good track record on this. Management’s refusal to address known safety issues has resulted in numerous tragedies across many industries. Some high-profile examples of this include the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia explosions, the recent Takata airbag recall, and the Deepwater Horizon explosion. In each of these cases, leadership had an opportunity to address the issues, but chose to prioritize other things over safety.

These examples bring me back to my original question: Why do tragic accidents have to happen before changes are made? As leaders, we have the opportunity to change this in our organizations. We can take responsibility for prioritizing safety and teaching those around us to make wiser decisions.

A Shining Example

From his very first press conference as CEO of Alcoa, Paul O’Neill made worker safety his primary focus. He was determined to create an organization that prioritized safety above all else, even if his investors disagreed with the approach.

Throughout his tenure, O’Neill made it clear through his words and actions that leadership was responsible for the safety culture in the organization and that worker safety was to be a top priority for everyone. He raised the bar to impossibly high levels to challenge his organization to make the necessary improvement.

In order to create the culture change that was needed, Alcoa focused on changing one single aspect of their operation. They encouraged all employees to proactively suggest safety improvements. Mechanisms were put in place to ensure that suggestions were addressed and that employees would not be afraid to suggest changes.

As a result of these changes, Alcoa was able to drastically improve their safety record. They reached performance levels that were not thought to be possible in their industry.

Safety as a Keystone Habit

While the safety improvements achieved by Alcoa were fantastic on their own, they were just the beginning. As described by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the act of suggesting safety improvements became a keystone habit for Alcoa.

A keystone habit is a habit that encourages the development of other positive habits. It creates a chain reaction in the development of positive behaviors that has a far greater impact than that of the keystone habit alone.

For Alcoa, when the organization got into the habit of suggesting and implementing safety improvements, it naturally led to the habit of making other types of improvements. Cost savings, quality improvements, and other ideas began to bubble to the surface and affect the overall performance of the company. A total transformation had occurred as a result of the initial focus on worker safety. From Duhigg’s book:

By the time O’Neill retired in 2000 to become Treasury Secretary, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived, and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion. Someone who invested a million dollars in Alcoa on the day O’Neill was hired would have earned another million dollars in dividends while he headed the company, and the value of their stock would be five times bigger when he left.

What’s more, all that growth occurred while Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world.

If you are leading improvement efforts in your organization but are not sure where to start, I suggest you start with safety. Focus your efforts on proactively identifying opportunities to improve safety for your employees as well as your customers. In addition to the direct benefits provided by these efforts, it could become a keystone habit for your organization as well. The better you get at identifying safety improvements, the easier it will become to identify other improvements as well.

Think about your organization. What risky behaviors or unsafe conditions have you been ignoring? What can you do to begin addressing them today? If you can’t think of any right now, keep looking. We all have opportunities to improve, we just aren’t used to looking for them.

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Justin Self

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