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‘Measuring’ does things to people…. (and what to do about it)

safety measurementIt has become fashionable for organisations to use positive or leading indicators as a way to ‘measure’ their risk and safety ‘performance’. Leaders in some organisations have proudly told me how they are ‘progressive’, ‘generative’ and ‘world class’ because they focus on leading indictors and ‘the stuff that makes a difference’.

Some of the most common leading indicators that organisations measure and track are;

  • the number of ‘safety interactions or walks’ conducted by their leaders;
  • the number of safety audit or inspections;
  • the completion of training activities as per a plan.

Some leaders tell me that they have even done away with some of their lag indicators, saying “that’s just managing by looking in the rear vision mirror, we are proactive, we focus on prevention, that’s why our measures are all leading ones.”

I imagine many people in the risk and safety industry reading this would be thinking ‘a big well done and about time’. But does changing from a focus on lagging indicators to leading indicators really mean that an organisation is more proactive? Or does it just create an environment where leaders are seduced into thinking that they are doing more about safety, when in fact they are just creating another measure?

When an organisation introduces any measure, and associated goal(s), it is done so with the intent to influence how people in that organisation go about their work. Organisational leaders know that goals impact on behaviour.

For many in risk and safety, the introduction of a lead indicator and goal will be seen as a positive thing. However, while these ‘lower order’ goals measuring activity (e.g. safety walks) may appear positive on the surface, it is how they work within the context of the overall culture of the organisation (i.e. the social context) that we in risk and safety should be really thinking about.

As Moskowitz in The Psychology of Goals notes, “Goal-pursuit processes might operate at sometimes in a conscious, controlled way and at others in a non-conscious automatic way”. (2009, p. 118)

While leaders in organisations may act in a conscious way in carrying out activities associated with leading indicators (for example, conduct a set number of safety walks), it is the non-conscious (and automatic) responses and actions that we in the risk and safety industry should be on the look out for.

Before I lose too many of you who think that I’m crazy to be criticising the introduction of leading indicators, let’s explore this a little further by looking at just one example of a lead indicator, ‘safety conversations/interactions/walks’.

A Google search of ‘Safety Conversations’ brings up 126 million hits, ‘Safety Interactions’ 157 million hits and ’Safety Walks’ 112 million hits. Clearly, there is an appetite, and a lot of information available on this type of safety activity, hence my comment above about the introduction of leading indicators being ‘fashionable’. But what impact on behaviour can occur when a measure like this is introduced?

I’ll use an example from an organisation that I visited recently where I heard leaders and workers alike talk about ‘safety interactions’ being ‘done’ to people. There were targets for each leader to have four ‘interactions’ with four different workers each month. The organisation thought that they were being progressive and I can understand why. They had invested two days worth of training and follow up coaching for each of the 100 or so frontline leaders at the site. The site manager said that was a sign of her commitment to safety, “I’ve invested a lot of money and I expect my leaders to utilise the skills they have learnt in the training and have at least four ‘safety interactions’ per month”.

So what could be wrong with that I hear you ask? In terms of the intention, possibly nothing. What I noticed though was the effect of measuring the ‘safety interactions’ that changed things. I spoke to many people in the organisation who told me that when the ‘interactions’ started a few years ago, they were ‘pretty good’. Leaders would talk with workers about safety and risks and in the words of a couple of workers on the night shift, “they seemed kinda genuine”.

However over time, it seems the focus in this organisation turned from ‘qualitative’ to ‘quantitative’. That is, the focus now is on the number, not the quality of the ‘interactions’. When I visited the site I saw safety interaction boards, graphs and management reports in place, all which measure the number of interactions completed. Leaders who don’t complete their set number of ‘interactions’ are not eligible for their annual bonus. The site leader I spoke with proudly told me that these ‘rules’ even applied to her. “We are serious about this she said, safety must be a priority for all of our leaders and we expect the interactions to be done”. There appeared to be no discussion or thought amongst the site leadership about how effective these ‘interactions’ were.

Again, many in risk and safety would applaud this leader and her conviction to ensure that leaders interact with workers about safety. I believe that leaders interacting with workers is critical and important. However, when it is the number of interactions, rather than the quality of, and intent behind the interactions, that becomes most important, they become more dangerous than useful. When the intent is about measuring interactions rather than engaging with workers, you will see things like:

  • Frontline leaders criticised and ridiculed at pre-start meetings if they haven’t ‘got their numbers’
  • Senior leaders rushing at the last minute (29th or 30th of the month) to get their numbers up
  • A focus on graphs demonstrating the number of interactions per ‘plan’.

This poses a problem for people in risk and safety. While many may understand that ‘measuring does things to people’, they are bound by the requirement of most organisations who insist on measuring activities to ‘measure’ risk and safety and often struggle with how to deal with this.

So, here are some tips for you to consider in your organisation if it too is focused on measuring:

  • Firstly, check in with yourself and take time out to think through this topic. The worst thing you could do is just agree with me without thinking through things yourself, more thinking the better!
  • Use this paper as a discussion topic with your leaders if you feel they are up for the discussion. Ask them what impact the safety measures you have in place has on your culture. Is the focus on quality or quantity and what does this mean for your organisation and your people?
  • Lead the way yourself, how do you go about your ‘safety interactions’, does the measure drive your behaviour and do you focus on quantity over quality? What can you do about this?
  • Rather than trying to change to whole organisation, can you do it through ‘bite size chunks’ and focus on the better leaders in your organisation and work with them to influence others?

What ‘things’ does measuring do to people in your organisation?


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Comment by Marci Trotter on March 24, 2015 at 7:41am

excellent points. I see this happening too often. Everything turns into numbers, numbers, numbers.  If you want to change a Safety Culture of a company then it can't be about the numbers.  It has to be about the people, getting involved in the daily tasks, caring about their own performance.

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