Wednesday, August 19, 2015

What Do We Measure Then? - Seek First to Understand

Last week’s post discussed some of the pitfalls of one of the most widely used and flawed methods for tracking safety performance in the profession – the recordable incident/injury rate. The post received a lot of attention and discussion, which is exactly what we were hoping to generate (thanks for that!). One common response we received from a lot of you was – ok, then what do we measure then?

The goal was to get people to think outside of the world we’ve created for ourselves with these incident rates, not necessarily to provide a roadmap to what a new world would look like (be wary of those that do provide such roadmaps). But so many people asked that we thought we could at least share our thoughts on how to approach thinking about and building new ways of measuring safety performance within an organization.

So, lets begin. Whenever you measure something the first step is to make sure you understand what it is that you’re measuring. (Note that we’re talking more about measuring for the sake of managing something, not necessarily measuring for the sake of figuring something out, e.g., scientific exploration.) As Stephen Covey would say, “seek first to understand...” The measurement of safety should begin with a clear understanding of what creates safety in your organizations. You can’t measure what you don’t understand. (Note - If we were being academic, we would say that measurement must begin with a clear model or theory about what creates safety in your organizations.)

There are two things we can say about this right off the bat. First, in our experience, this is something that very few safety professionals have explicitly done. Most just do safety, they don’t think about and reflect on safety. Second, we do have to admit that it is impossible to fully understand what it takes to create safety in your organization. You can know what you can know, but you don’t know what you don’t know. This does not mean that we’re helpless. More on that later.

To the first point though, we have to avoid the temptation to answer this question with “not having accidents” or “everyone going home at the end of the day”. Those are results or outcomes. That is not safety, because safety is something you do (a process), not something you have (an outcome). This is why we need new metrics for safety, what some call leading indicators, leading metrics, or process metrics.

So what do we think about then? Think about how safety is created in your organization. What does it take? What would you see if your organization were creating safety on a daily basis? A couple points jump out of these questions:

  • These metrics should be specific to your organization. Each organization has different cultures, different contexts. These makes cookie cutter approaches to safety problematic, and hence measurement across organizations problematic. Even within one company, if you have different business units in different geographic locations they may have different needs that require different metrics.
  • These metrics should be specific to tasks and responsibilities. In the same way that your metrics should be diverse depending on the organization (horizontal diversity), metrics should also vary across the hierarchy of the organization (vertical diversity). What it takes to create safety within your engineering department will differ from what it takes for your line staff and will vary from what it takes for your upper management. If we truly believe that safety is everyone’s responsibility (LINK), then there should be metrics applicable to everyone.
  • Metrics should overlap across units and groups. Keep in mind that just because these metrics are specific to one group does not mean that the metrics only apply to that group’s safety. For example, the actions of upper management affect the safety of the whole organization, so metrics based on their actions may not directly apply to their safety alone. You may use something like top management participation in safety committees as a metric, which has little bearing on the safety of the manager, but can have significant effect on the safety of the rest of the organization.
  • Metrics should be dynamic. The words we used in the questions above may seem awkward at first (e.g., “create safety”) because we don’t usually talk like that in safety. But we intentionally chose dynamic words to show that safety is a dynamic process. Risk changes over time and so should our safety processes. What it takes to create safety today may be different tomorrow. That means our metrics should change with the changing realities of the work environment. (This assumes that you’re keeping your finger on the pulse to identify those changes! Again, more on that later.)



The questions above the points that follow from them give us a foundation from which we can begin to think about what we would want to measure. In our next post, we’ll continue the discussion and talk about actually creating those metrics based on this thinking, some of the pitfalls many organizations encounter when doing so, and how you can avoid them. We’ll also begin to present a framework that may be useful in helping us identify emerging threats early in the process, so we can respond accordingly. Stay tuned!

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