Acorn Coaching and Development

Improving business performance


Why your safety managers could be doing more for your business than you realise

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The success of safety improvement in the last 20 years or so has valuable lessons for other aspects of the organisation. Dealing with quality issues, slippage of project costs and schedules, and how to foster innovation to compete with other businesses are all areas ripe for the deliberate application of safety thinking.

Where are we now?

Behavioural Safety and Safety Culture are now familiar concepts to a wide range of organisations across a variety of sectors with the need to manage high-risk operations: aviation, nuclear, chemical, pharmaceutical, construction and infrastructure have all embraced the thinking and techniques that go with it. The results have been impressive. The aviation industry, as just one sector example among many, achieved a rate of 0.2 fatal accidents per million departures in the US in 2008 according to the Flight Safety Foundation, and is still on a downward trend - a vivid illustration of the reliability that can be achieved, and a great comfort to those of us who fly frequently.

When accidents do occur, they are explainable in behavioural and cultural terms, and investigations frequently reveal the failure to apply known remedies, thus confirming the validity of behavioural and safety cultural approaches.

Particularly driven by the Piper Alpha disaster of 25 years ago, the oil and gas industry has been a generous commissioner of academic research to understand the fundamental nature of the issues, and a frequent leader in the practical implementation of tools, techniques and policies to underpin safe operations. We have now reached a happy state in oil and gas where a generation of managers have grown up immersed in safety culture thinking, and where statistics have demonstrated that an offshore oil and gas worker is less likely to be injured than a worker on the mainland of Scotland.

Understanding success - how did we get here?

The understanding and skills required for safe operations have even risen to the paradoxical challenge that, as operations are made intrinsically safer through analysis of failures, actual accident rates fall. As a result, the supply of ‘fresh’ accidents to learn from dwindles. Encouraging the reporting of, and focusing on the analysis of, incidents and near misses, has continued to contribute to understanding how to identify risk and better define the envelope of safe operation.

The big picture is an undeniable success story and the understandable tendency is to then shift the focus to other areas of the business that might be generating ‘pain’. We can leave our safety managers to continue their relentless pursuit of the management of risk and let them keep up their guard against the demon of complacency, secure in the knowledge that things are moving in the right direction. Attention can be given to the other things that also routinely trouble the organisation: quality issues, slippage of project costs and schedules, and how to foster innovation to compete with other businesses.

So what?

But hang on a minute, if the safety function has been so successful, do we fully understand why it has been so effective and could some of that learning be transferable? Could it be successfully applied to those other sources of organizational pain? After all the effort and investment over the years, could we get back even more than the current hard-won prize of improved and robust safety performance?

To answer that question let’s take a look at a familiar model in safety thinking: Organisational Safety Culture Maturity. In its original form it proposed three ‘cultures’ or stages of maturity (later developed with oil and gas industry involvement into a more sophisticated five-stage model). It’s interesting food for thought.

  • Stage 1 Pathological

This is an organisational culture that actively contributes to accident and injury through an unbalanced emphasis on getting the job done, ducking responsibility, suppressing information, penalising those who speak out, hiding failure, discouraging ‘bridging’ (inter-silo, and inter-hierarchical level relationships and coordination), and resisting new ideas.

  • Stage 2 Bureaucratic

This is a culture that attempts to address the obvious dangers and deficiencies of Stage 1 but does so in a clumsy and proceduralised fashion. A pure task-focus is countered by the development of procedures about how a task is performed, responsibility is identified and allocated narrowly, information is gathered but may be left unanalysed, there is greater tolerance of questions and dissent, failures are judged to apportion blame, bridging is allowed but not positively encouraged, new thinking is seen as a problem to be managed.

  • Stage 3 Generative

This is a culture in which safety and other considerations are integrated into the task, information is actively sought and provided for its recognised value (an ‘informed’ culture), responsibility is shared (a ‘just’ culture), people are trained to analyse and question, failures trigger a deeper level of inquiry to appreciate root causes, bridging is rewarded or even integrated into the way of doing things, new thinking is welcomed and generates improvement.

People who encounter the model recognise their organisation’s culture in it, its present state, where it has come from in the past, and how it compares to other organisations they have experienced. From this basis it then has real power to challenge what is happening and suggest a route to improvement.

Beyond safety

Part of the power of this model is in its validity as a descriptor of organisational development. If this model has been a part of successfully driving safety thinking in the past 20 years or so, how could it be applied to some of those other sources of organisational pain?

Let’s take a Quality scenario (with the ‘bundling’ of HSQE expertise this is not too great a stretch of the imagination): a recurring defect rears its head and comes under investigation.

What would an experienced, behaviourally and culturally aware safety manager do? The development of safety culture has been down this route many times and has obvious parallels in accident investigation and near miss reporting, which also seek ultimate root causes. Safety has succeeded through focusing on accurate information gathering, working on the relationship with the operators to encourage them to be open with the information they hold so that real issues can be addressed. In addition, the negative consequences of information-sharing have been reduced by consultatively developing a ‘just’ culture where people know that management use the information in a fair, consistent and proportionate way.

These two approaches ultimately combine to develop an informed culture where people know the boundaries of acceptable operation and can share expertise to design realistic actions to make sure they are not crossed.

Beyond HSQE

Project management is well known as the black art that exists between the cost and schedule optimism of the sales team and the harsh realities and mounting pressures of delivery. A common scenario is one in which a project appears to be progressing well but is starting come adrift from its schedule or budgeted cost. The reasons may be many: unrealistic aims to start with, late changes of spec, procurement difficulties, unanticipated technical difficulties, that is to say external causes, not bad management.

The danger that projects become locked in a recurring pattern of pathological and bureaucratic behaviour is a real one, but the bureaucratic action of simply raising a multitude of variations must be avoided. Rather than fighting each other to a standstill, what if the leaders took a leaf from the safety handbook and asked what would it take to move closer to the generative culture? Only early sharing of information likely to result in delays and knock-on effects, and involvement of the client, will avoid surprises and enable working together to achieve the best possible project outcome.

Some battle-hardened project managers might object that this is naïve and stick to a manipulative and adversarial approach, but this is territory long abandoned in safety thinking - proof that it is possible to break the paradigm.

What about innovation?

In most cases innovation is not the single great leap forward or game-changing technology. For most businesses, most of the time, it is the almost imperceptible daily grind of evolving their product, services or processes to enable them to compete by learning to do more for less, or developing other added-value offerings aligned with their core expertise and existing markets.

In the safety culture model the clearest differences between the stages are in how information is handled in each culture. Consideration of the generative culture in action makes it clear that this stage is going to be the most likely to deliver those competitive innovations. It is the only stage that fosters the sharing of knowledge and experience necessary between the levels and departments of the organization - where a truly informed culture can grasp the needs and share the part-solutions that in sum drive the required evolution.

Summing up

The success of safety improvement in the last 20 years or so has valuable lessons for other aspects of the organisation: quality issues, project slippage and competitive innovationsare all areas ripe for deliberate application of safety thinking. Even if they don’t use the same terminology, most businesses aspire to a generative culture. In their safety culture they may already have an operating model awaiting further exploitation of its potential.

Perhaps the time has come to accept that the skills and experiences of safety managers are the skills and experiences that will take companies forward in future. Perhaps the next generation of CEOs will have safety-specialists turned generalist in its ranks. To those who say “Never!” we say, “Which culture do you represent?”


Hale, A & Borys, D., 2012. Working to rule, or working safely? Part 1: A state of the art review. Safety science 55, 207-221

Parker et al., 2005. A framework for understanding the development of organizational safety culture. Safety Science vol 44, 551-562

Reason, J., 1998. Achieving a safe culture: theory and practice. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations vol 12, 293-306.

Westrum, R., 2004. A typology of organizational cultures. Quality and Safety in Healthcare 13 (Suppl. II), ii22-ii27