Safety Report

Harness the power of habit to change your culture

The culture of your organization is influenced by many factors. Some are planned, but some just happen. Every word, action, measurement and reaction helps to change or reinforce the culture.

Culture can be simply defined as “the way things are around here.” Another definition of culture is “a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs which governs how people behave in organizations. These shared values have a strong influence on the people in the organization and dictate how they dress, act and perform their jobs.” Culture is not aspirational; culture reflects current reality.

Karl Pearson, a brainy guy who taught and published during the turn of the century, said, “When performance is measured, performance improves. When performance is mea-sured and reported back, the rate of improvement accelerates.” This is known as Pearson’s Law, and is often translated into “what gets measured gets done.”

Measuring performance and out-comes drives organizational success. Success comes from clear goals and accountability. Achieving success and outcomes in safety requires a keen understanding of what drives safe performance. That is different from understanding what causes accidents and injuries. To become effective and world-class, you must measure success not failure. An accident is a failure, and to be sure, you need to eliminate those points of failure, but to achieve sustainable, world-class results, you must understand what causes performers to act safely and prevent injuries.

“Flight of the Buffalo” by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer contains a powerful quote that every organization should heed: “Do the people in your company know how well they’ve done before they go home every night? People perform what they measure — help the performers to measure the ‘right’ stuff.”

And the measurement is not zero injuries. Achieving zero injuries without determining why that happened can just be a matter of luck, circumstances or other factors. Rather the measurement of performance must be the specific, measurable behaviors, actions, habits, procedures, feedback, words and deeds that are done daily by world-class organizations to drive toward stellar performance.

Does your organization have accountability for your employees and leaders? Are there established performance expectations and dashboards that everyone can use to measure their performance against expectations?

How do you define your culture? Does your culture encourage personal responsibility, value open communication, use positive language, seek constant improvement, provide recognition for achievement, hold leaders accountable and expect high performance? Can you measure all of that?

Many are familiar with the story of Paul O’Neill and how he transformed Alcoa Aluminum from a poorly performing company into a huge success. Charles Duhigg writes about this amazing journey in his book, “The Power of Habit.” When O’Neill had his first meeting with investors, it started like this:

“I want to talk to you about worker safety,” he said. “Every year, numerous Alcoa workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work.

“I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.”

The audience was confused. Usually, new CEOs talked about profit margins, new markets and ‘synergy’ or ‘co-opetition.’ But O’Neill hadn’t said anything about profits. He didn’t men-tion any business buzzwords.

Eventually, someone raised a hand and asked about inventories in the aerospace division. Another asked about the company’s capital ratios.

“I’m not certain you heard me,” O’Neill said. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures.” Profits, he said, didn’t matter as much as safety.

Within a year of O’Neill’s speech, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. By the time O’Neill retired, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than before he arrived and its market capitalization had risen by $27 billion — all while Alcoa became one of the safest companies in the world.

The concept of “keystone habits,” described by Duhigg, was a key driver in this transformational change in Alcoa. “I knew I had to transform Alcoa,” O’Neill told the author. “But you can’t order people to change.”

There are many interesting stories in Duhigg’s book, but by focusing on safety, O’Neill created a culture of accountability, innovation and high performance. O’Neill maintained an “open communications line” where any worker could call him, and they did. “Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents,” O’Neill said. “They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.”

Many organizations have discovered that by creating a focus on safety, many other improvements are realized. At Alcoa, creating the lines of open communication allowed workers to voice business improvements that never were heard before. By focusing on keystone habits, O’Neill created patterns for better communication. And that resulted in a tremendous increase in profits.

Keystone habits help systemwide change by creating cultures where new values become embedded. It can be argued then that core values are your company’s keystone habits.

Safety can transform an entire company, dramatically improving culture, quality, productivity, communication and profits. CEOs and business leaders who understand this and focus on safety achieve some of the greatest business success. This well-documented pattern is noted by financial and safety experts alike with the National Safety Council featuring “CEOs Who Get It” annually in its Safety+Health publication.

What are you saying in your organization? What words and mental models are you creating? What are your core values? What habits do you encourage, promote and expect? What are you measuring? Everything you say and do affects your culture. Choose wisely.