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Vision 2024: Shaping the Future of Safety Culture & Leadership with Dr. Josh Williams

Vision 2024 Shaping the Future of Safety Culture and Leadership

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We encourage you to join us for another engaging conversation with Dr. Josh Williams, a seasoned safety culture expert for over 25 years and partner at Propulo Consulting. Josh highlights five key, big-picture safety themes for 2024: structured governance and executive commitment, SIF prevention, human performance, why observations still matter, and attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets. You’re sure to gain indispensable insight as Josh provides a clear vision for successfully shaping the future of your organization’s safety culture and safety leadership this year!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost, for the C-suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. 

Happy New Year, and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today, we have a very special episode. It’s hard to believe how 2023 flew, but we have Dr. Josh Williams with me, joining me for a conversation on Vision 2024 some key ideas to shape the future of safety, culture, and leadership. So, as you’re exploring some topics to level up your strategy for 2024, we’re going to introduce five core themes. Josh, welcome to the show. Why don’t you give a quick introduction to yourself? This is not the first time you’ve been on the podcast.

Thank you, Eric. I appreciate doing this again. We always have fun doing these things, and I’ve been doing this safety culture and safety efforts for 25-plus years. I got a PhD years ago with a guy named Scott Galler, who is one of the foundational folks in the safety culture and behavioral safety space. I’ve been lucky enough to be with Propulo for five-plus years here and like doing these podcasts. This should be fun.

Okay. Well, the five topics we’re going to touch on today are work structure, governance executive commitment, and ideas around how you can level that up. We’re going to touch on CIF prevention. We’re going to talk about human performance. We’re going to talk about why observations still matter and how to level those up and then close off with attitude, beliefs, and mindset. Quite a few areas and themes, big picture ideas to look at for 2024. First, let’s touch on organizational structure, governance, and executive commitment. I think this is an area where a lot of organizations have huge potential opportunities. What does it mean? It’s one. Where does the safety report go? How do we make sure that safety has the attention of the right levels of executives, ideally reporting to the C-suite? That’s number one. Really making sure that safety is visible. We’ve seen too many organizations where safety is layered into the business or… We’re spread out across different functional areas, which simply doesn’t work. The second is really around governance and the importance of executives and how executives weigh in on safety. At the end of the day, employees know if the executives aren’t talking about safety on a regular basis, they can’t hide it.

We were doing some work in one organization. The executive team was not having a daily, weekly, or monthly conversation around safety. Frontline team members said that. They said senior executives don’t care. They saw it because they weren’t seeing the executives day in and day out in the field interacting with them. It does matter. So, four things to look at when you’re looking at the role of governance and executives is one, are they setting a vision? Are they motivating people around safety across different levels? Are they really looking at clear governance around safety, really trying to build a learning organization? The second one is are they showing personal commitment and role modeling safety? Are they really spending time in the field, visibly felt, role modeling safety, and really explaining the balance between safety and production? These are really key elements. We’re going to touch on something about listening to her soon. Decision-making is, are they looking at safety on a regular basis? Is the CEO and the top management team looking at safety, the safety culture strategy, and adapting it on a regular basis, ideally monthly or every second month? Are they talking about safety performance? But also, the strategy is to drive improvements.  

So, key areas to focus on. And then, the element of transparency and accountability, are they open to sharing successes and failures? It is a key area, really, in terms of how executives show up for safety. One area that I know, Josh, you talked a lot about is Listening tours. I’ve done this a lot with senior groups, getting them to go spend several days in the field listening, understanding what’s going on, but really there to listen about what are the things that are getting in the way of a perfect day for safety. Seeing some organizations do this they even bring people from different office functions that don’t normally understand their role with safety, people in HR and finance, and having them spend some time in the field. But what’s important is debriefing after. What are the things that you do in your corporate function that impact a perfect day in the field?

I think it’s a larger issue to me, Eric, of leadership and culture and establishing norms of excellence. For me, and I’m a big college football fan, and I’m not a huge Alabama fan necessarily, but you’ve got to respect any of your sports fans out there. What nick Saban has done over the years is not only to get to the top of the mountain top but to stay there for a long time. I was watching a game a couple of years ago, and I took notes, which means I’m pretty nerdy, but I was interested in what he said post-game in the press conference. He was talking about his team’s performance after beating New Mexico State 62-10, and he’s angry, and he’s thumping the podium, and he’s saying we didn’t play to our high standards for most of the game. We didn’t get any better this week compared to what we were last week. That leads to bad habits, which leads to trouble when you’re playing more competitive opponents. He finished with, you’ve got to play to your own high standards every day. I think there’s a lesson learned there in terms of safety leadership, which is we’re playing to our own standard of excellence, and the numbers take care of themselves on the back end.

Do everything right on the front end; things take care of themselves, but you’ve got to be vigilant. You’ve got to be focused on this every day. We’re going to talk about huddles in a minute. We’re going to talk about observations in a minute. Eric just mentioned listening to us is a great way of doing that. We’re staying sharp every day. And one of the things that I think is really important is what’s the scoreboard. So, in this case with Nick Saban, the scoreboard looks terrific, 62-10. But there were some underlying things there that weren’t quite right. And that scoreboard may not be so pretty next time if we don’t clean things up. One of the challenges, I think, is that we get so enamored with these numbers. It’s like our recordable rate went up 6.2 % and went down 3.61 %. I’ll go to a site and watch some of these presentations, and it’s like 12 slides of statistics on injury numbers of various things. I’m like, Good Lord, people are falling asleep. We have to be focused on not killing people. I think it’s high time, and I think we’re starting to get some momentum there.

The issue is stiff potential, serious injury, and fatality potential. We got to be looking at that. That should be our primary focus. Now, the little things matter, too, but sometimes we just go way overboard. The air precursors that predict smaller things are not the same ones that predict these catastrophic events that alter people’s lives forever. Bee stings don’t predict fatalities, you know what I mean? But we got three bee stings last month, and that’s not an exaggeration. That stuff people get dinged for, and we just get too enamored with the numbers. I think one of the things we should consider moving into 2024. There’s been some momentum there, but I think I encourage all of you who are listening to focus on the potential for really bad things to happen. That’s not to be negative. It’s just let’s keep our eye on the prize. Quick example: if you’re getting out of your vehicle and spraying your ankle, then it’s a recordable injury. It’s not the same thing as falling off a scaffolding 20 feet up. It’s a different deal. One thing can really change your life forever. We need to make those distinctions. We need to do things like risk registers with the top three or four things that are really seriously dangerous.

Pay attention to them with near misses. Pay attention to them with incident analysis. Pay attention to them on the front end with listening tours, learning teams, and peer checks. The sift prevention, I think, is really important. We need to keep our eye on the prize in terms of the big picture. Before we transition into talking more about some HP themes, some human performance themes, just a consideration. When we’re looking at this, we need to look at the big picture holistically. When I first started in this industry, it was all about attitudes. We’ve got to change our attitude. And then behavior-based safety comes along, it becomes a commodity that’s bought and sold and all this stuff. It was all behaviors. HP brought in more systems focus, which I think is a good thing. The problem is it’s not one or the other. It’s all of them. We need to focus on improving attitudes, behaviors, and systems so that we can do our best job to decrease the probability of something really bad happening to somebody. So, as we start talking about HP and human performance, one of the good things I think is that it has brought more attention to the system.

One more quick football analogy. I’ll turn it back over to you here in a second, Eric. But I think it’s important to consider the environment you’re in impacts what you’re doing. We all think we’re Clint Eastwood on the Wild West, Monolithic, whatever. We are shaped by our environment more than we realize. For example, Randy Moss, a wide receiver, one of the top five probably in history, was with the Minnesota Vikings years ago. Their culture wasn’t great, and I like the Vikings, but their culture was poor, and he had all kinds of problems on and off the field. He gets traded to the New England Patriots. At the time, the top in the cultural team, whether you like them or not, had their act together like Alabama football. All of a sudden, he’s a modeled citizen. He changes overnight. Maybe he grew up a little bit, but maybe he got into a better system. The same person in a different system operates differently. That’s why when we start talking about human performance and culture change coming up here, we’ve got to be really mindful of what we are doing with our systems to encourage the best behaviors and attitudes out of our people.

One last thing on the CIF prevention side: I think a lot of organizations are starting to look at it, but you need to be obsessed with a lot of the little details. As you said, the predictors are not necessarily high-frequency events. Hopefully, they’re not. But part of it is really understanding the near-miss is really getting a lot of visibility to it. I think when you look at Aviation, in 2010, there were 62,000 near-miss reports for 700,000 commercial flights. That’s what we’re trying to get a lot of potential things and then understanding which ones are going to be important, and then addressing those through the risk register that you talked about.

This episode of The Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance. Introduce human performance capabilities and re-energize your BBS program. Enhance supervisory safety capabilities or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us at Propulo.com.

You touched quite a bit on systems, HP, and human performance in general. I think the key component is really looking at the system besides the equation. But, like you said, it’s not about just doing HP. A couple of things I think I want to propose on the HP side is that HP is really about culture change. It’s not a thing, it’s not tools, it’s not training. Yes, those things are part of it. But I think that’s where a lot of organizations miss the opportunity on the human performance side, is they think it’s a thing, it’s a training program they need to do, rather than looking at it’s really culture change. And it’s culture change. I would even propose that it’s really the evolution of cultural models that we’ve seen in terms of ownership around citizenship. Some elements where I’m looking at a bigger piece, I’m driving continuous improvement on an ongoing basis, but it’s really about shifting the cultural norms. I think that’s what organizations really need to start looking at in terms of driving change.

Yeah, you know what? And the thing that interests me, and I really, like I said, I am happy to see more emphasis these days on system factors. The first response when somebody gets hurt shouldn’t be, would they do wrong? How did they screw up? The first question should be, where did the system fail? And in some cases, it didn’t. And it’s just a matter of personal accountability and responsibility. But our first instinct should be, was it the time pressure, lack of training, not enough people. There are a million things that are contributing factors when things go wrong, and that’s where our focus should be when these things happen. Let me just talk about a couple of principles of human performance. I think it will advance our dialog here today. But some of the fundamentals are things like workers trigger, late in conditions that already exist in the system. It’s like the stuff in the system is not where it needs to be, and it just so happens that workers may trigger some of those issues. Things line up a certain way, like the VP explosion years ago. It’s like all these little events happened at the same time, then you got that awful explosion.

And again, I like this quote: Safety should not be viewed as the absence of events but rather the presence of solid and consistent defenses against human error. And within this framework, human error is a predictable outcome of human beings operating in flawed environments. Again, we don’t want to take this too far. And sometimes people get into this thing where it’s like there’s never any accountability anywhere. That’s crazy. The nice thing about tightening up your systems is if you’ve got your systems really good and you still have someone operating outside those parameters, whether it’s repeated violations or egregious things, the discipline or punishment associated with it, it’s easier to do when you know you don’t have a ton of system factors contributing to it. So, you don’t want to take it too far and say there’s never any accountability. You’ve got to have positive accountability throughout your organization. But again, we want to try to stay away from that blame when things start to go wrong. And I also want to point out behaviors still matter. And this behavioral safety stuff, look, and I did years of research on this, did years of implementations on this.

I’ve seen some really good things and some not-so-good things, but behaviors matter. The National Safety Council said years ago that 90 % of all injuries are due in part to at-risk behavior or human error, but 80 something % of those risky behaviors are influenced by the system. I think both those percentages are low. I think it’s higher than 90 % of risky behaviors influencing incidents, but I also think it’s higher than 80 % that system factors contribute to these risky actions. But behaviors still matter. We still want to look at it. We want to set up behavioral expectations for leaders, for supervisors, for employees. This is our expectation here. This is what we do, and we’re holding people accountable for those behaviors. So, the challenges with, I guess, with behavioral safety and the way it has become a commodity where you can get all kinds of crazy stuff going on there. The checklist got way too long. They got way too complicated. It became a pencil-whipping, check-the-box exercise. Instead of asking the four or five simple questions, maybe seven or eight, like leadership listening tours. When we’re doing these listening tours, we should be asking things, and this could be part of a behavioral safety process as well.

We could have some associated behaviors. We’ve had great success with organizations that had behavior-based safety programs that were dying or dead, and we revamped them because there are some good benefits there. But in addition to looking at some high-risk behavioral categories, we’ve got things like, what scares you about the job? Where could somebody potentially get hurt? What can I do as a leader to help make your job safer? How would you do this job better moving forward? You’ve been here 25 years. You know the ins and outs and subtlety of this job. What do you want to do? By transitioning it, making it more simple and more conversational, and also advertising improvements when people bring stuff up with these behavioral observations or human performance observations, do something with it. Make changes, make improvements, and advertise it. All of a sudden, you’ve got more discretionary effort from your folks because they see stuff’s getting done. So, we’ve got to be really mindful, I think, when we’re talking about human performance and system factors that we look at it holistically. We’re also looking at attitudes. We’re also looking at behaviors because they still matter.

I think a couple of things as well on the observation side I would add. So, I agree with simplification. The other part is building this into your operating system with huddles. It’s a weekly huddle where, maybe even once or twice a week, you’re reviewing themes, you’re directing to particular risks that you want people to look out for. And you have those cascading across the organization to senior levels to really bring life to changes and what’s happening. It’s not about the checklist. One organization I’ve been working with, the huddles became something where they directed focus to key areas, which is really good. When you said direct to something, you could see a 300 % increase on the weeks where they said, look at this particular risk. And then you’d see the risk was high, and then it would decrease. So, they’re going after risks one at a time, week by week, looking, I think, across the system to see if those teams are happening in more than one location to make sure we’re addressing it. The other part is making sure that in those observations, yes, we’re looking at the behaviors, but we’re also looking at some of the system factors, some of the hazards that are present, the controls that are in place, because that can also inform some of the elements on the CIF prevention side as you’re going out, you’re looking at behaviors, but you’re also looking at system factors as you’re there.

Yeah, and what I like about that, too, Eric, and I’m glad you mentioned melding them together because we should be… That old expression, it’s not an observation without a conversation. We want to ask people what’s going on here. We’re learning through these conversations about what’s happening out there, and we can make adjustments and improvements, tighten up the systems, and become a more high-reliability organization by getting and using that feedback from folks in a more, again, holistic way.

And closing the loop, like you said before, is really, really critical. Observations matter, but the way they’re done in many organizations, system-focused from an IT standpoint, is not the way to do it. I think we’ve got to really make sure there are conversations flowing up and down the organization so that the change can be rapid. I’ve seen it in several organizations where we do it with huddles. Very rapid change happens because people are escalating issues all the way to a VP and fixing them. The last piece I think is really important to look at is attitude, beliefs, and mindset still matter. At the end of the day, I go back to my days when I was in aviation. The degree of safety ownership that people were taking was not coincidental. People felt responsible for 200 300 lives on a particular plane. And so, there was a very strong degree of ownership. A lot of organizations talk about hearts and minds. That comes through training. You can get people to reflect, like, why do I stay safe? Who do I stay safe for? And then really to influence from leaders, which is a higher order skill that you want your supervisors and your leaders to continuously reinforce and influence why you stay safe so you’re making the right choice that influences your behaviors.

Obviously, as you said, the system impacts it as well. But you really want people to start putting more ownership around and really reflecting and getting awareness around where is it that as a human, I’m more likely to make a mistake? If I’m fatigued, if I’m distracted, I have the awareness and tools to deal with it. But it also gets into how I design my work environment, the job, and how I create professional orientation. If you look at pilots as an example, there’s a lot that goes into the uniform to the stripes that goes in. It’s really about creating a strong professional orientation as you graduate. Really key. But you got to blend it with focus on observations. You got to blend on focus on behaviors and also on system factors. And I just want one thing, we didn’t talk about this earlier, but I think I want to jump in with recognition just for a moment because the attitude piece, they can shift, they can be influenced if we’re doing the right things and treating people right, and I think one of the best ways of doing that is appreciating the good things that we’re seeing. I think a lot of the frustration sometimes you’ve got people 20, 30 years asking, When’s the last time someone thanked you for something safety related. They laugh. It’s been 20 years. Recognition works. It influences future actions. If I’m being appreciated for something, I feel good at the moment, but I’m more likely to do it next time when nobody’s looking and it’s free. It doesn’t cost money. It takes time, but it doesn’t cost money. I think just wanted to throw that out there in terms of the attitude and mindsets, belief systems. We can influence that stuff by treating people right. Recognition, I think, is underappreciated. We should be doing it more often.

Thank you, Josh. To all our listeners, Happy New Year and Happy 2024. Hopefully, this gave you a couple of ideas in terms of how to level up your strategy for 2024.

Thanks, everybody. Thank you.

For listening to The Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Dr. Josh Williams is a partner at Propulo Consulting. For more than 25 years, Josh has partnered with clients around the world to improve safety culture and prevent SIFs. Dr. Williams earned his Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Virginia Tech and is a behavioral safety, human performance, and safety culture improvement expert. Josh is the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and co-editor of Keys to Behavior-Based Safety. He has published more than 150 book chapters, government reports, white papers, blogs, and articles in leading journals. Josh has also delivered hundreds of presentations at leading national conferences and is a highly regarded public speaker. He received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.

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