Can Safety Be Number One?

We often hear organizational slogans like “Safety is Number One,” yet there may be very little substance behind the slogan. Then, when managers are faced with production demands that push them closer to the edge of safety as they  drift towards safety boundaries, they may have trouble making decisions that favor safety over production. After all, it is production that takes designs and turns them into a sellable product or service that will bring revenue into the company. Reduced revenue can have ripple effects that may be wide-sweeping, such as layoffs, which requires workers to do more with less, further reducing safety levels in some cases. What I often find is that managers are not given the training and tools to make sacrifice decisions, which are decisions that help to prioritize and balance, sacrificing one attribute for another. In this case, it would be a decision to sacrifice production in order to protect people and material assets. Sacrifice decisions are needed to balance safety and production in a useful manner that is congruent with the values of the organization. I think it is important to consider safety as something we do, a value to be upheld, and a process to be integrated into the fabric of the organization, from design and planning, tool and equipment selection and setup, procedure design and execution to debriefing and learning for continual improvement. If safety is a value it is not a priority to simply be pushed aside.

Let’s take a similar example. If one of Company X’s Core Values is “We will treat our employees and customers with courtesy and respect” and its mission is “To produce the highest quality widgets in the industry,” we have something to work with. Suppose while a new quality manager is seeking to push through a new contract with a supplier that makes the highest quality components available, and in the process it requires him to circumvent another manager, his actions in seeking quality would be incongruent with the company’s values because he would not be treating his colleague with respect. Some leadership training could help managers understand how this works, and some guidelines could be provided to help managers with the kinds of sacrifice decisions that are often required to place things like safety over production when necessary, or perhaps even to use some bricolage, experimentation, or tinkering to improve processes. On the surface this experimentation might seem like reducing levels of safety temporarily in order to expand the company’s capacity to succeed, but it may actually be possible to improve safety through this process as well, such as using creative brainstorming to make a process safer or implement more effective safety controls. Sacrifice decision-making skills are extremely important and it is better to train our leadership and management on how to do this, than to pretend it is not a critical skill.

We can say the same thing about managing risk to other business areas, such as financials or logistics, where decisions may need to be made to protect finances or supply chains rather than pretending that threats to those areas do not exist. Sure, there are definitely times when we may need to push harder than other times to meet acute production goals, but leaders need to provide managers, supervisors and team members with decision guidelines so they know what is too far. Then, when the hard calls have to be made, there is a framework to help make those decisions. Organizations should develop a leadership mindset at multiple levels within the ranks and empower people at varying levels so they understand how to make these decisions.

In this week’s podcast Bob Conway talks about Disney’s 4 Keys and how they are used to prioritize decisions. We had a great conversation. This is a longer (err… should I say epic?) episode, but I think it is worth it.

Here is the iTunes link:

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to it on our website:

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