Safety Measurement: Culture Shaping or Failure Avoidance?

“It is a new month. I want you all to work very hard to fail less than previous months. I’ll be measuring. Failures will not be tolerated. Anyone caught doing so will be disciplined by his or her peers and/or leadership.”

Leading and measuring with the approach characterized by this comment creates malicious compliance, avoidance behavior, a have-to mentality, and disdain toward the organization. Teamwork becomes a pointless buzzword, and fear of measurement sets in. When organizations measure only incidents and establish and reward incident reduction goals, “fail less” becomes the message. Are your safety measurement systems focusing on motivation and excitement, or evaluation and reactive accountability?

Lagging Indicators Create Hope

Incident metrics are prescriptive when there are many kinds of data. As safety improves, the data used to advance results lose statistical significance, which leads to a multitude of random data points. As an organization matures in its safety management systems and culture, reported injury data often move from prescriptive to descriptive, then to demotivating, and then become borderline pointless. When you achieve zero incidents, how do you continue to improve? Most importantly, are the results due to purposeful initiatives and accountability, or luck? What sense of comfort does the organization have that it can repeat the same results next year?

An injury or incident is a failure in your prevention process. When the strategy or measurements are focusing on reducing injuries, the culture is being motivated to avoid failure rather than achieve success.

When a failure occurs and tactics are deployed quickly to prevent recurrence, there is an impression that “leadership is reactive when it comes to safety” or “someone has to get hurt for safety to improve.” Rarely are high-performing cultures motivated by measurement of such an approach.

Measurement: Motivational or Demotivating?

Safety measurement is supposed to direct, align, and motivate behavior. What percentage of employees in your organization are motivated, or even excited, by safety measurement compared to those who are fearful of it?

Executives deploy a multitude of measurement systems to validate the health of operations. Safety is no different than any other operational priority, yet few leverage balanced scorecards or transformational measurement dashboards. If safety is such an important priority or core value, how balanced and comparative are the average measurements? Figure 1 shows a sample balanced scorecard. Figure 2 shows a sample transformational measurement dashboard.

1. Balanced scorecard for safety excellence. If safety excellence is defined in behavioral terms (what people need to do to create positive results), it is observable and feedback is possible. When this happens, the organization is effectively coaching for performance, rather than managing results through a trial-and-error strategy. Source: ProAct Safety

2. Transformational safety measurement dashboard. For safety to become a core value, safety improvement cannot be delegated. Key decision-makers need to be involved in the creation and continuous evolution of the safety measurement strategy. Source: ProAct Safety

Of course, measuring results is important; ignoring results can be career-limiting. However, results alone do not identify what actions must be taken to continue achieving them. Approach a sampling of employees, tell them what the current incident rate is, and ask what they can do to affect it. How aligned are the responses with the reality of what the focus needs to be? Also ask employees if they know how the incident rate is calculated. Unfortunately, you may be disappointed by the answers you receive.

Identify Leading and Transformational Measurements

Working with many of the best safety-performing organizations in the industry, I have created leading, comparative indicators and overall transformational balanced scorecard safety measurement systems. Consider collaborating with other leaders and influential followers in your organization to answer the following five questions. The answers to such questions (Figure 3) can facilitate the transformation necessary for obtaining breakthrough safety performance:

  • What does excellence look like in behavioral terms? What would you see or hear the average employee, supervisor, manager, or executive do or say that creates a sense of comfort that success is near, because you are effectively working your plan and executing your strategy? If safety excellence is defined in behavioral terms (what people need to do to create the results), it is observable. If it is observable, feedback is possible. When this happens, the organization is effectively coaching for top safety performance, rather than managing results through a trial-and-error strategy.
  • How desirable are the current safety beliefs in the organization? Beliefs influence decisions, behaviors, and stories told throughout the organization. Desirable perceptions are a common leading indicator in the industry, and measuring those indicators through a perception survey is easier than many realize. What would the desirable perceptions be, and what is the current gap?
  • How does common practice compare to desired behaviors and experiences? What is the reality of day-to-day activities compared to what is desired?
  • How will you market safety at your facility? Yes, market safety. Though it is often ignored, significant value is derived by focusing on branding, positioning, customer feedback, and reinforcing buying decisions. How will measurement systems encourage improved safety efforts?
  • What initiatives will support the safety excellence strategy? This should be the last question of this series. Unfortunately, the average organization makes many great attempts to improve safety but has difficulty demonstrating how those efforts will produce measurable progress.

3. Developing leading transformational measurements. The answers to these questions can help promote a successful safety program at your facility. Source: ProAct Safety

Delegate Priorities, Not Values

For safety to become a core value, safety improvement cannot be delegated. Values are created when, over time, beliefs are reinforced by consistent behaviors. This requires key decision-makers to be involved in the creation and continuous evolution of the measurement strategy. Measuring the right things and celebrating leading indicator progress is far too important to be the sole responsibility of the safety department if sustainable excellence is your goal. Unless, of course, you are okay with just failing a little less year after year.

—Contributed by Shawn M. Galloway (, president of ProAct Safety. He is an international consultant, professional speaker and seminar leader, and has helped hundreds of international organizations improve their safety performance. He is also the host of the weekly podcast series Safety Culture Excellence, available on iTunes.