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Episode 30 - Taking your Safety to the Next Level: Integrating BBS and Human Performance with Dr. Josh Williams



Behavior-based safety, human performance, cognitive psychology… It can be overwhelming to consider so many competing safety approaches. On this week’s episode, Dr. Josh Williams returns to advocate for a well-rounded approach to safety. Josh shares practical HP tools for learning from workers’ first-hand experience and taking a proactive approach to preventing SIFs. Don’t scramble to improve your organization’s safety once it’s too late!


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, 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 The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. Today I’m very excited to welcome back to our show Dr Josh Williams. Dr Josh Williams is a recognized thought leader in safety and safety culture. He’s a winner of the Cambridge Setter First Place National Prize for Behavioral Science, well over 20 years working with organizations in helping them improve their safety, build strategies around safety culture and assess how they’re doing. Amazing to have you back on the show. Josh, you’re also with Propulo Consulting as a partner and an incredible thought leader in this space.

So, Josh, why don’t we start out with a quick introduction. I know you’ve shared this story a little bit before in terms of how you got into the safety space and what captured your passion around it.

Well, I appreciate that, Eric. Thank you. And apologies to the listeners. I’ve got a little allergy attack happening here, so hopefully I don’t sound too awful. But I was in grad school getting a Ph.D. in industrial organizational psychology, and I was a bit frustrated. It was very pie in the sky. Theoretical. I don’t mean that disparagingly for food or the research, but, you know, I want to real stuff. I wanted to get out in the world and do things.

And I was lucky enough to meet up with Dr. Scott Geller, who I think is in my mind is the fountainhead really for safety culture in the space. And he was doing really cool stuff going, you know, above ground mines, going to manufacturing facilities and doing stuff. And it was really fun. It was interesting. And I felt like I was making a difference. So that was kind of my introduction to the safety side. I had not even thought about safety as I kind of got into to grad school, but we were doing a lot of a lot of neat things.

And so, once I finished up, I signed on with this group and worked with them for a bit. So, it was it was really it was really interesting to feel like you’re doing things to not only improve culture and communication and leadership, but hopefully keeping bad things from happening to good people. So that’s kind of where it all started many years ago.

He said, well, we’re obviously talking today about how you keep those bad things away from happening today. Specifically, we’re talking about two concepts, human performance, and this other theme, which is been really an integration of themes around behavior-based safety and human performance. You’ve authored two quizzes. So one is that human performance leader dot com. So, it’s a quiz on how are you doing for a human performance standpoint in some ways and tactics to drive forward, as well as a Microsoft assessment that’s available on

Let’s start first in terms of understanding why we need to talk about a human performance, so we know 90 percent or so of incidents, occurrences of a safety infraction happen because of some form of at-risk behavior, a behavior. B, safety has had huge leaps of impact in terms of it. But tell me about some of the missing pieces and why human performance needs to be part of the equation.

Yeah, and let’s start by giving behavioral safety its do. Look, this has been around for decades. Injury rates have dropped twenty eight percent over the last ten years. Part of that is due to behavioral safety in my mind. Look, the National Safety Council had that estimate. I think you mentioned 90 percent of all injuries are due in part to at risk behavior. And it’s a numbers game. It’s a probability game. Well, you know, it’s like going to Vegas if you’re there for an hour.

That’s one thing. If you’re there for two weeks, odds are you’re going to lose money. It’s just probabilities that Gabriel Sapience in part is founded on. If we can be safer, more often, we’re reducing the probability of incidents, as Tiger Woods just got in his third car wreck. I mean, there’s some risky behaviors happening, so. Right. So, the challenge, though, Eric, to your point, is that, quote, 90 percent of all injuries are due in part to risk behavior.

That in part piece is important. That’s from the national scene. So, I think it’s higher than 90 percent. They have to be in part pieces. Systems matter. We are a function. Behaviors are a function of environmental contingencies, which is just an academic way of saying we operate differently depending on the system we’re in. And give me a moment to Randy Moss for you. Sports fans out there was all in all kinds of trouble and all kinds of legal issues.

For years and years and years with the Vikings and with the Raiders, who were a highly dysfunctional organization at the time, this guy spent his entire career in and out of trouble until he gets traded to the Patriots. I’m not a Patriots fan, but they have tight systems. They’re a championship organization. And. All right. From Randy Moss is a model citizen, literally doing all these things for the community. I mean, maybe he had a midlife epiphany or maybe he got into a better system and turn things around.

Now he’s on Fox News or Fox Sports or whatever as an analyst. But this guy, same person in a different system. Right? He was totally differently. The system matters and I think too long on the behavioral side. We got into these quotas and these checklists, and these did you do your cards thing and forgot the big picture, which is fixed systems to influence behavior. So that’s why the system matters. And I’ll just say two quick things on human performance and the rise of human performance and the integration of that with behaviors and mindsets.

First, fix the system. Second, quit blaming people when things go wrong. And then really, I think the HP side has been really good for safety and I think it’s helping a lot of people stay safe.

That’s excellent. But human performance is not a new thing. I remember when I started the airline industry many, many moons ago, this was a common topic of conversation. Can you tell me a little bit about the history behind it and some of the themes that drove this re-emergence? Because now we’re talking about a lot in the safety space?

Well, I mean, they were talking about with fighter pilots in World War two, you know, how do you change the cockpit to set it up to reduce air in stressful situations? I mean, the I industrial psychologists like myself many years ago talked about leadership in selecting leaders and training leaders, but they also talked about setting up the planes so that you don’t unintentionally do something bad. So, this has been around for a century. And there’s been various iterations, as you know, and certainly it was a big part of part of this many years ago.

And there have been other folks that have focused on the human performance side. But there’s been a re-emergence in my mind over the last maybe five years. And I think part of it is we’ve got a little sideways on the behavioral side and didn’t always do it right. So, I think I think the bottom line, Eric, for me is that concern I have now, frankly, on the side is there’s a lot of theory and just quit blaming people saying I’m all in theory, but it’s also getting segmented.

When I first started out, cognitive psychology was the thing and there were all these cognitive consultants talking about ownership and personal things, reflection, and those, but that sort of gave way to the behavioral people who were saying, look, we’re talking about your feelings, let’s do stuff. And you’ve got the human performance, people saying we’re talking about behavior because you’re blaming people, just fix the system. And the truth is, all those things matter if we’re not talking about you can a feeling that affects what I’m doing.

And if we don’t talk about systems, we’re just we’re missing a big piece of it. If we don’t talk about behavior, we’re missing a big piece of it. So that’s why what we call BEHA, which is kind of behavioral safety and human performance with some cognitive elements, too. That’s why it’s important if we don’t look at all three of these, you’re just incomplete in your efforts to get better. So, I think we need to be looking at all three of those.

I think a really good point, because it shouldn’t be a battle of philosophies and it shouldn’t be one thing or another. It should really be an element of how do we battle injuries, how do we battle safety, how do we make a tangible difference around it? And I agree with you, all these things matter. The mindset you have around your level of safety, ownership matters, the behaviors and how you shift those behaviors matter and the system hugely important overall.

So, tell me about some of the basic tenants that bishop or human performance bring to the table.

I think the main one, there’s a bunch. And again, if you go to some of those quizzes, there’s more information there you can take a look at. But the main one, I think, is we are human beings, and we make mistakes, whatever that whoever their years go to areas, it’s just so true. And the first point in my mind is, is we are efficiency machines. Human beings are efficient. We look for the easiest, fastest, most comfortable, most convenient way to do things.

That’s why I mean, why do you speed on the highway? Why does McDonald’s exist? Because fast food gives me food. And so, we’ve got to understand that. That’s so that’s part of the quit beating people up over stuff. Look, you put yourself out in the field somewhere where it’s 100 degrees, there’s six million things going on. Your production schedules are ridiculous. You don’t have enough people. And then you start telling me, be mindful of my behavior because I sprained my ankle.

Are you kidding me? So, we just have a little need, a little more sensitivity. First, we’re naturally inclined to be risky. And second, the system encourages it. And that’s where that’s where I think we sort of missed the boat there for a bit. I mean, time, pressure, insufficient training. We’re doing all this computer-based training. But look, I need hands on training. I need job specific training to what I’m doing.

But we’re throwing some computer thing at me that’s not helping. We don’t have enough people. Sometimes the conditions are difficult. You know, procedures may not make sense. You’ve got some blanket policy you slapped on there because somebody got hurt. But that doesn’t really apply. The excuse me, the biggest picture really is getting input from people doing the work. And that’s through close calls. That’s through other safety suggestions, through other means. We’ve got to and we’ll talk about some tools, hopefully, if we have time.

But the system is encouraging, and human nature is encouraging. And so, we really have to take a step back and look at how do we improve our systems, how do we improve our added our mindsets, how do we improve our leadership? How do we improve our behaviors? Because that’s really when you start seeing serious. There are two things there. I think, one, you’re going to see a better stability and performance where you don’t have this.

That’s a huge yes. Although we had five record bills last month, we had done six straight months of it. Yeah, because your systems aren’t very good or the scarier thing, which is that if potential all of a sudden there’s an explosion like BP where, you know what, eleven people or fourteen people get killed in a blink of an eye. They had given a safety award the day before, but they had lots of things lined up wrong at the same time.

The Challenger explosion, another one. So be careful because sometimes we have a false sense of security because our systems are poor and then all of a sudden something really bad happens. It kills a bunch of people.

Yeah, I think it’s a really good point. You brought up this theme around Tool’s. I think there’s a lot of people that are talking about human performance from a from a branding standpoint, but they’re not talking about how you actually go out and do something with it. What are some of the tools that you can leverage? Can you maybe share some of the ideas around what can somebody who buys into this element or in human performance do?

This seems to be a cultural component. And then there’s a tool-based component. Let’s maybe touch first on the on the tools and then we can talk about how leaders can start shifting as well, their approach to drive some of the cultural elements.

Yeah, right. And keep in mind, Deming said this years ago, don’t blame people for problems created by the system. So, when we started trying to fix the system, getting a. Input from people that are on the job doing the job is our first order of business, or at least one of the first. So, a couple of tools first tool will start at the top. First of all, listening tours where you’ve got executives, you’ve got senior leaders spending more time out in the field actually talking to people and not look, some leaders are great at doing that.

They’ve got a good feel for what’s going on out in the field that talk to me. They have a good relationship and that’s wonderful. And look, these people are busy. There’s a lot going on. They got a lot of things on their plate. But carving out time to go out in the field and talk to people is smart business. It’s good for you. It’s good for everything. So, one tool, I’ll call it listening tours where we have a little guide and it’s not coming down as a leader saying you’re doing this right, you’re doing this wrong.

You need to do A, B, C and D, it’s really asking questions. What’s going on out here? What are you struggling with? Help me understand what you’re doing. It’s about listening. It’s about being curious about what people are doing. It’s about asking how they’re doing on and off the job. And we provide a little guy with four or five things just to kind of reminder. But it’s just getting people getting leaders out in the field and better understanding what’s going on and trying to establish relationships.

The second tool, I’m going to call it a space, a pure check. And this is unlike a behavioral safety card where you’re you know; you’re checking a bunch of things. Hard to get know this, that yes. No, this card. And there’s no quotas with it. There’s no names on it all. It has questions like, what do you need to do this job safer? What scares you about the job? How could somebody get hurt?

What do you need? What would you do if you been doing these twenty-five years? What would you do differently on this job to keep you and other people send them to questions? And if we’re in, the nice thing is we’re having better conversations with people because we’re asking them questions. And on the back end, we’re getting information we can use to make things better, because if we find people are telling us, you know, we have a scaffolding issue over here, well, good, we can go fix it.

And if we do a good job of responding to concerns, fixing things and advertising improvements, it’s better for safety and it’s better for culture because all of a sudden people realize they care and they’re doing stuff. So those would be the first to learn.

If I can add on the on this on this last one you just shared is to me, this is also an element of I don’t necessarily know, quote unquote the truth, that there may be a safer way that I haven’t thought. And I’m pushing, thinking, and pushing critical decision making at the frontline level to reimagine how could we do this better as opposed to cabbing, pontificating about I know how to do it. I’ve got my checklist and it’s either yes or no, but there’s no alternative.

Better way to do it.

Absolutely, well said, absolutely.

So, you’re going to add a third one and I cut you off there.

Well, learning teams is the big one where you get a group of folks and they go out and, you know, like a pre incident analysis, borrowing that from talking on you, different language. But the idea is instead of just reacting once an incident occurred and trying to be more system focused and focusing on potential serious injury and fatality potential down the road, send people out before an incident occurs to see where something could go wrong here. So, learning teams are going out, appear to stay safe.

Your check is generally for a particular job. Somebody is doing a learning team. You’ve got to pull is going out, walking around, doing a tour and saying, you know what’s going on. And they’re asking questions. They’re talking to people they’re making notes of. And there’s some really good ideas. I mean, there’s so many creative ideas out there about restructuring the work and the flow of the work. I mean, there are smart people out there, and if we talk to them and give them some voice and power, they have some great ideas for better, safer, more productive ways to do the work so they can be more productive, make more money.

Everybody’s happy. So, giving power to those learning teams is that there’s a bunch of three-way communication time outs. There’s a laundry list, but those three in particular I like.

And so, what for from a leadership standpoint needs to change. Where do you start from that leadership standpoint to make impact the whole burning platform thing? And, you know, it is big. And I’d be curious to get your thoughts on this, too, Eric, but to me, the primary understanding from leaders needs to be the need for change. I’ll say what I said earlier, but you are not going to get stabilized performance. You’re not going to have predictability because everyone’s so focused on trial.

Are rates going up this month? They went down last month. And it’s going up and down and up and down. And I don’t know why. And all of a sudden, we had a flurry of incidents. So, you’re going to get more stability and performance, less deviation around the mean, whatever those rates are, because there’s stability, there’s predictability by tightening up systems, we get more predictability. Second one is the potential reduction, because look, I mean, we you and I both for many, many years have seen these really bad things happen where all of a sudden, a serious injury happens.

I’ve got way too many stories of talking to people that have been involved in incidents or safety leaders that have to make those phone calls to people’s homes when somebody dies on the job. I mean, it’s sudden, it happens quick, and it catches everybody off guard. And then all of a sudden everyone scrambles and tries to make improvements. We need to reinforce with leaders, do it on the front end before that really bad thing happens, because those dangers are out there and some of these places we work, there are so many things I can get you seriously in a hurry.

So, the burning platform is the issue with leaders like, look, you got to understand, making money is good and the safer we are, the more money we’re going to make anyway. I mean, this is not this and we’re dragging along. It’s embedded in who we are and how we operate. If we really like Paul O’Neill did all those years ago to improve safety, he came in, revolutionized how safety was looked. It’s part of the character.

It’s not something we do. And lo and behold, profits soared. Now, there are some things he did. I might do a bit different, but he’s for or for sure came in with. Safety is part of who we are. And we are not just doing this as a slogan. So, I think understanding it, feeling it, that personal ownership is there and creating that burning platform for leaders is step one. And then we start talking about tools and other things.

Yeah, I think that makes sense. I think there’s this whole element of our own philosophy has quit blaming your employees that that needs to be thought through shared with leaders for there to be some real sizable impact because it’s a different way of showing up. I think it makes a ton of sense. But there is a there’s a difference there. So, a lot of the debate I here is because a lot of people are dogmatic about everybody’s safety or about human performance or like you talked about cognitive psychology, applied to safety.

Do you need to say, let’s go do this thing or do we just suddenly start infusing the thinking, the philosophy and not necessarily even branded?

So, there’s an interesting question, and I would argue that sometimes we do too much flavor of the month where there’s something there’s a bunch of fanfare and then something else comes along. So, my hope is that human performance elements are embedded naturally with an incident analysis for sure. I mean, we need to do a much better job of looking at system factors, contributing to incidents and also what are the potential for future incidents. So that’s close call reporting. Same thing, other mechanisms for getting employee concerns and safety suggestions that stuff should be happening naturally.

So, you don’t need to buy a widget called Human Performance. Yeah, having said that. I think some I think the training and education and tools are useful and what we do when we go in and work with folks, for instance, someone who’s got a behavioral program, but it’s turned into a quota system or something. We don’t abandon behavior-based safety altogether. Bihar, where we update the car to have more open-ended questions, to generate better conversations.

So, we you know, to me, we embed some of the human performance elements and systems that are already there. We’re dovetailing we’re not scrapping something and creating something. Sure. So, I think it depends on the depends on what you need with what the organization needs. Sometimes a human performance implementation is smart or a big limitation of smart. Sometimes we’re just tweaking what you’ve already got.

And I like your approach around Bishoff in terms of really integrating the behavior-based safety elements that work well have been proven to drive down injuries with some of the elements of human performance in terms of truly making an impact. And I think that also needs to be augmented by some leadership capabilities and leadership thinking in terms of evolving how we approach safety. A great place to get some ideas around it. Just a quick self-assessment that that you’ve created at a human performance leader Dotcom.

So human performance leader dotcom free self-assessment doesn’t capture anything personal about you, just for you to self-reflect in terms of how you’re doing, how your organization is doing around it, plus that the mini self-assessment that you’ve created at under the self-assessment pages. So, Josh, really appreciate your thinking on this. I think it’s just such an important topic. I think it’s really the future around safety is bringing a lot of these capabilities together to the table.

When you share a lot of the stories, it reminds me of so many things that even the quality movement have been talking about. There are so many similarities around it, just different names. But fundamentally, it’s the same core principles around how I go do listening tours or Gemba walks. I speak to people, have an open mind to think that that maybe there’s a safer, better, higher quality way to get it done. And those who are closest to the work are most likely to want to do more.

And it’s a proven way to tap into people’s discretionary effort. So, Josh, any closing thoughts on the topic of human performance and this integration between mindset, behavior and most importantly as well, adding the system because all of these things interact with each other, they’re not in isolation?

Yeah, I guess my final thought, you know, leaders have a tough job, whether it’s a supervisor or a higher-level leader. It’s there’s so much going on. And with covid hitting and people scrambling there and worries at home with kids and all this stuff, I mean, look, everyone’s scrambling. And my final thought would be if we can infuse some of these HP elements and do a better job of getting and using feedback from people doing the work, the benefits everybody makes, it makes life easier for those leaders and it certainly makes life better for our employees.

So, it’s to me, it’s a helpful way, which is good not just for safety, but for everything.

Well, thank you so much, Josh. Always a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you for taking the time to come back and share some thoughts and insights around human performance. Really encourage people to start thinking about how I can include some of these principles, these ideas into my safety program. It’s been proven if you look at performance in the airline industry, you look at performance in the in the nuclear industry where these capabilities are deep, deep, deep, embedded.

It’s a proven tool kit, the looking at the system, as is demonstrated to drive results. Thank you, Josh.

Well, thank you, Eric. I appreciate it.

Thank you.

Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team. Fuel your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru, Eric Michrowski.

Please read more in Josh’s related blog about Human Performance (HP):

Please read more in Josh’s related blog about Behaviour Based Safety (BBS):

Take the following self-assessment to gauge the current effectiveness of your Human Performance efforts:

Take the following mini-assessment to gauge the current effectiveness of your Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) process:

Additional online Self-Assessments are available at

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Dr. Josh Williams is a Partner with Propulo Consulting, a global management consulting firm delivering significant and sustainable improvements in organizational performance. For over 20 years Josh has partnered with clients around the world to drive increased discretionary effort and improved strategic execution. He’s the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.