Separating culture from strategy: SC&RA comment April 2019
By Joel Dandrea15 April 2019
In our specialized industry many companies boast of strong safety culture but, at the end of the day, they’re only as good as their safety strategy. While most leaders will promote said culture from the top down and hope that it ripples through the various layers of an organisation – ultimately implanting itself in the operational habits of each employee – there’s a difference between the description and the prescription of safety.
Describing a safety culture without prescribing the necessary strategy required to implement and sustain it is a race to the bottom for many companies – and they may not even be aware of it. One early collision happens when a company’s production strategy conflicts with safety for priority. If an organisation truly seeks safety excellence it has to target not just safety goals but the methodology behind those goals and how it can be put into practice within and throughout each layer of the business – interlaced and alongside production.
The thing about strategy is that it also needs to remain flexible. As we all know, the specialized crane and transport industry is constantly changing. To think that our safety strategies wouldn’t evolve accordingly is unreasonable, and likely, unaffordable in the end. Your safety strategy must be both specific and adaptable; it should articulate a leadership style, which in turn facilitates a culture that resonates within your people.
As leaders, our job in this regard is to directly convey our expectations in no uncertain terms while also supporting the message via leading by example. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to assume that our core safety culture is strong, and therefore doesn’t need maintaining, revisiting or evolving.
Know the difference
One effective way to turn culture into strategy is to have that strategy implemented by safety professionals in the workplace, versus hand-me-down culture inside the workforce. No matter how much your staff, at all levels, has heard about or even knows about safety, a proper strategy should be executed by a safety professional. Unfortunately, in a lot of cases, safety departments can be underfunded, understaffed, or non-existent. This creates a re-active safety culture – untethered and looming – that never gets a chance to evolve and adapt to a changing industry because it’s always in panic mode and-or busy putting out fires.
When employees or managers are consistently in clean-up mode, they definitely don’t have the time or focus to think about strategy. To make things worse, this pattern can easily become the culture if left unchecked, always threatening to spiral out of control. Needless to say, the consequences could be catastrophic.
All the more reason to concentrate safety strategy around when and where it can most effectively be implemented. Critical to this process is directing how and how much to engage employees in safety efforts. Again, knowing that you want a comprehensive, effective culture but not zeroing in on how to define it and adopt it is the same as not having one altogether.
You’ve got to commit. Make it happen. Put the right people in place and involve your workers so they have some skin in the game and feel ownership. Then share your rationale and lead by example to create a company-wide buy-in. When you’ve accomplished this involve your team(s) to create hands-on participation in safety strategies.
Inevitably, you want to wrap this process in a steady support system that serves as an umbilical cord of sorts, consistently feeding the culture by executing and evolving the strategy.
Something to keep in mind: culture is a by-product of strategy. One looks really good on paper, while the other keeps your company upright and successful. It pays to know the difference.