Safety is not and should not be a standalone strategy within any organization. “Safety should be a part of the overall operational plan of the business,” says Terry Mathis. Mathis is the founder and CEO of ProAct Safety®, an international safety and performance excellence firm. As a veteran of more than 1600 safety, culture, and performance improvement projects, Mathis has personally assisted organizations including Georgia-Pacific, Herman Miller, AstraZeneca, Wrigley, ALCOA, Merck, Rockwell Automation, AMCOL International, Ingersoll-Rand, and many others, helping them to achieve safety excellence. Named as one of the top people who have influenced EHS numerous times, we spoke with Mathis about the importance of safety as a component of strategy. Here are 3 ways to start to examine if you are treating safety as a strategic imperative.
#1: Is your safety strategy integrated with your business strategy?
Strategy around safety shouldn’t be treated separately from the business strategy. Even when safety is seen as a core value, leaders can make the mistake of creating separate, standalone safety strategies within their organizations. If safety is treated as a standalone strategy, two problems can occur. First, it runs the risk of conflicting and competing with the business strategy. Mathis sees this when he’s called in as a consultant within an organization where workers are put into a position where they are forced to ask, “Should I be productive or should I be safe?” The problem is they are being pulled in two different directions because of two different strategies. In this case, both strategies can suffer. The second issue when safety is treated as a standalone strategy; it can worsen or create silos in your organization. “One of the problems with safety being a silo is that it’s not. Safety straddles all areas of the business,” explains Mathis. That includes HR, training/education, engineering, operations—the list goes on. If you make safety its own silo, you can isolate it from where it needs to have influence and where it really needs to be effective.
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#2: Is your safety strategy…strategic?
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Even with great intentions, many managers think they have a strategy supporting safety, but they really don’t, Mathis explains. “Safety is generally either strategic or programmatic, and we find more companies with a bunch of programs, rather than companies with a true strategy,” he says. A strategy isn’t just a list of programs or tactics. A strategy is a blueprint of how to win. Along the same lines, many managers do great strategic thinking in their outward marketing. The problem is, they don’t use that same strategic thinking for their internal customers and for their internal processes. “That same strategic thinking that leaders do on how to differentiate their company, how to win in the marketplace—that ought to be turned inward and into their company. They ought to be saying, for instance, ‘How do we win at safety? How do we win at quality within our own organization? Who are our customers and what are their needs, and are our programs and strategies really adding value to those internal customers?’” says Mathis.
#3: Do leaders support strategic thinking and decision-making?
Mathis has seen leadership styles that can be at odds with supporting safety as strategic imperative. For example, in one company he worked with, a CEO/president had a “command and control” leadership style. At the same time, this organization had an engaging and empowering safety leader whose leadership style was almost the opposite of the company’s CEO. When these top leaders came together, there was conflict that held back progress within the company. “Many organizations can assume that if they’re hiring a manager from another company, that he or she knows how to manage. And so their leadership style is seen as just as good as anybody else’s, but that’s not strategic thinking about hiring,” explains Mathis. Companies can work against this by becoming more aware of their own leadership styles across the organization. This awareness should influence hiring so that people are hired (or promoted from within) with management styles that will work effectively with the existing staff. If you must hire or already employ leaders with different than desired leadership style, all training and messaging should push them toward the desired methodology. “You can have phenomenal results by doing that. That’s strategic thinking, rather than just tactical thinking.”
Don’t Delegate Safety
If you’re the leader of an organization, you should lead that organization in every aspect, not just the ones you choose. “It’s similar to how there’s only one general in an army: He sets the strategy. Everybody from that point on down carries out his strategy through tactics. Similarly, no president or CEO can do everything themselves. They’re going to have to delegate something, but when they delegate strategy—that’s delegating their job,” says Mathis.
Safety As a Strategic Imperative: See Where You’re At
“Organizations often don’t need to add to their safety efforts, but rather they often need to strategically improve the quality and effectiveness of their existing efforts,” explains Mathis. Here are some questions you can use to reveal the state of your safety strategy:
- Have you created a shared vision of what safety excellence looks like in your business?
- If you ask any worker to talk about the desired state of safety, will you get accurate and similar answers?
- Does everyone manage safety in your organization?
- Does your style and form of management create unity of purpose, or does it cause a conflict between safety and production (according to workers)?
- Is your desired style of management in alignment with safety managers?
- Are your measurements of safety effective and could they be tied to business outcomes?
- Are you still managing safety with “only” lagging indicators, or have you developed more predictive metrics?
Reinforce a Safe Workplace With Your Proactive Activities
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