Moving to a Safety Culture of Excellence

Most organizations seem to be comfortable with being at the level of safety compliance. This is a start, but is not good enough over the longer run. We have to meet the OSHA guidelines and train the people in how to work safely and use equipment properly. There are lots of people doing the safety training and the American Society for Safety Engineers (ASSE) has many, many resources for the safety professional. Most of the people in most organizations have some knowledge about how to do the work safely, know how to use the PPE and have some knowledge of the safety rules.

Reaching high levels of safety performance when working in organizations like these is very hard. Sustaining these levels of performance is even harder. Once the people have been trained, proven that they know and understand what they have learned and then actually doing the work as they have been trained often falls short. For a variety of reasons people don’t follow through; people take short-cuts, forget, are pre-occupied, feel pushed, don’t believe that management really cares, there are not enough people to do all the work, management does not listen, they hear the words about working safety but their supervisor ignores the words.

There is a powerful need for our organizations to shift to safety cultures of excellence. Way too many people are being killed (~4,600 in 2011). Most of these accidents are preventable. Our existing cultures need to shift from top-down driven processes to ones that are more self-organizing and sustainable. Yet many people resist change.

Being fearful of changing job assignments, bargaining unit challenges, abuse of the rules, not knowing what is going to happen to them and their jobs is one major reason for resistance to change. Another fear of change comes from the uncertainty of who the new people will be that they’ll need to work with if they are reorganized; they have a set of relationships in their current job and any change will upset these. Another fear of change can relate to their status as relationships and structure change. Another reason to fear change relates to the level of control that a person currently has in their job over their work and uncertainty about how that will change. Almost all of these fears come about because change is imposed with little input from the people who will experience the change.

However, change is with us all the time. It is not some unusual incident which is being shoved at us.

If the processes of Self-Organizing Leadership are used most people will not resist change. With Self-Organizing Leadership the people are co-creating the changes that need to be made. People do not resist changes that they create, but rather they push these changes. Most imposed change efforts fail; most co-created change efforts succeed.

The four-step, Safety Leadership Process we use enables the people in the organization to co-create their safety culture and transform it to one of excellence where injury and incident rates drop almost to zero. In this process the first step is to use the Process Enneagram© to work with a cross-section of the organization to co-create their Safety Strategic Plan. In using the Process Enneagram an important, compelling question is developed; one that the group feels is really important and one they want to resolve. Then the facilitator begins to move the group through the sequence of conversation relating to each point helping them to develop clarity and coherence relating to what they want to accomplish and how they will do it. Everyone makes inputs which are written down onto the Process Enneagram Map.

The space is created so that the environment is safe and open for honest conversation.

This part of the Safety Leadership Process usually requires about a day so that the issues, assumptions, Principles and Standards, and goals are understood and the energy required to accomplish their transformation is released.

In the next part of the Safety Leadership Process, the Process Enneagram Map they have created is taken out to those who were not involved to share the thinking and to seek improvements. In these conversations, trust and interdependence are built as people see what management wants to accomplish and are walking the talk.

The next part of the process is to talk with people about what they are doing, listen to them, discover ways to improve the work and help the people to make the needed changes. As we do this, people become more comfortable in talking together and opening up.

Another part of the Safety Leadership Process involves actually looking at what people are doing.

Systems problems show up as we make our observations. We often see very high levels of unsafe behaviors that are the result of people trying to work within the work environment and making mistakes. This is not an employee discipline process, but rather a process of discovery and learning. As the organization continues to make observations enough data is collected that the observations can become a predictor of a potential injury. Then we show the leaders how to react and avoid the injury.

About Richard N. Knowles

© Richard N. Knowles and Safety Sage Blog, 2014. You may use this article on your blog, website or in your newsletter or magazine, provided that full and clear credit is given to author, Richard N Knowles, Ph.D of Safety Excellence for Business with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


  1. Every organization needs safety culture of excellence. Once people have been trained, they understand what they learned and apply this.

    • You are right in that people need to know what and how to do things safely. But, this is not the key to achieving safety excellence. We have safety training going on in just about every organization, yet there are about 4,600 people a year getting killed and around 4,000,000 getting injured. This is about the best we can do by just training the people. This superficial comment about just training misses the point. This approach is locked into the Cartesian/Newtonian reductionist, mechanistic view of organizations.
      Organizations are not machines! They behave much more as if they are living systems so we are much more effective by working with them from this paradigm. The Knowles Complexity Leadership Process goes more deeply into the ways that people choose to work together as a living system. They develop and execute their living strategic plan together and in doing this build levels of trust and commitment that lead to safety excellence. This complex systems approach produces improvements in safety performance faster, more effective and less costly in both suffering and money than the mechanistic approaches.

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