safety meeting
Lean

Leverage the Power of Safety to Drive Cultural Transformation

By Kevin Meyer Published on February 11th, 2022

Earlier this week our good friend Mark Graban at Lean Blog reminded me of an article on how former Alcoa CEO Paul O’Neill focused on improving workplace safety, which contributed to driving growth from $3 billion in 1987 to $27 billion in 1999.

“Focusing on worker safety can transform an entire organization and dramatically improve culture, quality, productivity, communication, and ultimately profits.” – Paul O’Neill

The article goes into detail on how his ideas caused initial consternation by the board of directors, how the initial improvements created real financial improvements in terms of reduced lost work days, but the end result was a cultural transformation.

The impact of improved safety is far more than the directly-measured financials.  Safety goes to the heart of the respecting people, one of the core components of lean.  When you focus on safety you are saying more than “I need a critical resource to contribute at full capacity” – you’re saying that the person matters.  That respect creates the ability to drive dramatic change.

I experienced a similar situation at a much (much…) smaller company over a decade ago.  We had a cascading series of morning standup meetings, starting at the factory floor and department level early in the morning and working their way to our executive staff at 8:30, where we were video conferenced into each facility around the country.  The executive staff standup happened in a wide section of hallway, so in public, and anyone walking by could watch and even participate.

The agenda was tight and moved fast so that we were updated and could address critical issues in under 15 minutes each morning.  In fact, it was so successful that the regular executive staff meetings changed from weekly to biweekly and eventually monthly.  When issues are addressed quickly they become smaller.  Transparency, understanding, and trust improves so teams are more comfortably allowing independent, individual action without requiring long discussion.

Soon after we started the morning meetings we had an issue with slips and falls.  We ended up learning that the cause was due to a combination of work shoes, new polished concrete floors in a new building, and changes to the overnight floor cleaning process.  We resolved it, but to stay on top of the problem we made this the first topic to be discussed in the morning meetings, which then eventually morphed into a general safety topic – always the first topic of each standup in each department, every day.

This sent a very visible message that our people mattered.  Before talking about profits and customers and technology, we talked about safety.  Since the morning meetings happened throughout all of our facilities, with important issues flowing toward the final executive standup, everyone talked safety, every day.  Everyone felt the value of people, and could directly witness everyone at every level discussing ways to improve the lives of people.  Every day.

In hindsight, this focus on safety created the trust needed to fuel our other transformation efforts.  If it’s so simple, why isn’t it more common?  It should be, but it requires leaders be humble, compassionate, and transparent.

Make safety the first topic of your meetings (preferably a daily standup!), at all levels.  You might be amazed at how that simple step transforms your organization.


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