Much has been written about how safety must play a key role in a corporation’s culture. Indeed, we even talk about creating a safety culture. But just what is a safety culture? And for that matter, what is a corporate culture?
The Culture-Centric View of Safety
Many in the safety field have come to see culture as the sun around which behavior and performance rotate. For example, in The Behavior-Based Safety Process, Krause, Hidley and Hodson devote considerable attention to culture. (The book is subtitled Managing Involvement for an Injury-Free Culture.) According to the authors, workplace behaviors, accidents and incidents are merely downstream manifestations of the real problems generated upstream as a result of the culture the organization has defined for itself (or, more likely, the culture that has been defined by default). It’s this culture that dictates the management system and style and actual safety performance is simply an outcome.
Of course, many recognize that while culture is significant, it’s not the be-all, end-all. Safety programs aren’t absolutely right or wrong. They’re right or wrong for particular organizations. What works for one company doesn’t necessarily work for another. For example, Dan Petersen cites an Association of American Railroads study documenting the spotty record of standard programs at U.S. rail companies. How could the same program produce such different results? Petersen suggested that the variance was the result of the impact each company’s unique culture had on the implementation of the program.
5 Keys to Cultural Success
The prerequisite to safety success under the cultural approach is the performance of an honest and straightforward appraisal of your management style, safety philosophy and translation of that philosophy into day-to-day activities. To help you do yours, consider what many researchers believe are the five basic elements that shape corporate culture:
- Business Environment: The reality of the marketplace in which the business operates;
- Values: What the business and the people in it stand for and believe in;
- Heroes: The role models and leaders and the values and beliefs they exemplify;
- Rites and Rituals: The systematic activities and programs that shape the organization; and
- Cultural network: How the organization communicates, both formally and informally.
The 8 Signs of Cultural Excellence
In In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman list the attributes of excellence exhibited by companies with successful cultures:
- A bias for action: Getting on with the job;
- Closeness to the customer: Learning from the people you serve;
- Autonomy and entrepreneurship: Encouraging people to excel by doing, not just putting it in paper;
- Productivity through people: Treating people with respect;
- Hands-on, value driven: Staying close to the action (the real world) and living the values espoused by the organization;
- Sticking to the knitting: Doing what you know best;
- Leanness of staff; and
- Simultaneous loose-tight properties: Being flexible enough to be both centralized and decentralized, and to know the differences and importance of each.
What does the importance of culture say about the role of the safety director? After all, most safety directors operate on the periphery of the business and don’t have a direct input into its culture. However, successful safety directors have learned to integrate and merge their ideas for a safety culture with other corporate culture issues. We’ll look more deeply into how safety directors can shape or at least channel a company’s culture to improve its safety performance next week.