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Behavior Based Safety has brought incredible successes to many organizations but often performance pushes to new heights and plateaus. In a lively conversation with Dr. Josh Williams, we explore strategies to push past the plateau. From re-energizing Behavior Based Safety programs to integrating ideas from Cognitive Psychology and Human Performance tools to bring a holistic approach to safety improvement. This is a must listen to episode if you want to explore options for what’s next in your safety strategy!
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Hi, welcome to The Safety Guru. I’m your host Eric Michrowski and today I’m very excited to have back with me Dr. Josh Williams. Dr. Josh Williams is a partner with Propulo Consulting who brings an incredible history of success assessing and transforming safety cultures through a multitude of different industries and approaches. His experience extends across behavioral safety, cognitive psychology, as well as human performance tools. He’s worked in this space for well over 20 years. We’ve had phenomenal success across industries.
He’s authored a book and is also a Cambridge Center award winner for behavioral research. Josh, welcome back to the show.
I appreciate it. Glad to be here.
Excellent. So today I want to talk about a really important topic. I’ve been getting a lot of questions on. This is really rude behavior-based safety. And what how do you make this more successful? So maybe if you can give a brief overview in terms of some of the background behind behavior, safety, and its early successes that you’ve seen.
It’s been around a long time; I was in graduate school in the mid 90s and it was already at point of trajectory in terms of being throughout the US and beyond Canada and beyond. Lots of companies doing behavioral safety at that point. It started originally with a guy named Scott Geller and Tom Kraus. They were kind of on the forefront in the early 80s, really. So, it’s been around a long time. And the idea behind it was fairly simple.
And that is most injuries have a behavioral component. And that’s what these guys were doing. What they kind of started was, OK, well, if that’s the case, then why don’t we list all the important behaviors on the checklist and see how we’re doing and go around and observe and we’re doing things more safely, more often. It’s less likely somebody is going to get hurt. So that was the logic behind it. And then there was just a mountain of research, you know, for all these interventions and all these.
I’ve got a bookshelf here, Erica degrees and all these all these books and wonderful information. But when you want to get down to science and looking at behavior change, the field of behavioral science is chock full of studies, empirical studies, meta-analysis showing the benefits of behavioral type intervention. So that’s one of the reasons it’s been around 30, 40 years. Is this because there’s science behind it? So, when done correctly, it’s a powerful tool to improve culture and prevent those serious injuries or fatalities.
Absolutely. And I think the topic that I most often hear, and I think it has to do with because it’s been around for a very long time, obviously, if you if you haven’t already implemented behavior based safety, in most cases, this is probably something that you really should be looking at. But a lot of organizations have implemented some great behavior-based safety is a pushed and had amazing outcomes and improvements. But often what I hear about is they push, and they plateau.
So, what I want to talk to you about today is a little bit about what’s missing. So obviously great successes. Organizations have improved if they push forward. But how do we go past that plateau? What are some of the things that organizations should be looking at?
Yeah, before we get to that, it’s important to note a lot of behavioral safety implementations weren’t implemented well. There was a cottage industry of behavioral safety experts who are finding checklists on the Internet and all of a sudden, they became a consultant. And you know, the reality of all this and it’s true, it diluted the success and the strength of it because a bunch of folks came on board that didn’t quite have the deeper knowledge of behavioral change.
And there’s a persistent component associated with it. So, there’s a reason why sometimes it didn’t go as well as it should. And there’s a reason why sometimes people go through criticisms of behavioral therapy because it was often implemented poorly. So that’s just kind of a reality. There are two things I want to point out really quickly. First is system factors need to be addressed. And that’s what the human performance folks are, you know, seizing the opportunity and doing a good job and a lot of ways of quibbling.
And people fix the system. That’s and that’s I think that’s an important contribution. Behavioral safety really was a safety culture training. You know, I mentioned to folks that kind of cut my teeth on behavioral safety what we were doing all those years ago. We were talking about Bandura. We were talking about locus of control, discretionary effort. It was safety, culture training with a behavioral intervention kicker. So that’s the way any type of training program should be.
It should be more holistic, which we’ll talk about in a second. But in terms of hitting plateau’s, it’s hard to do any kind of intervention. And you know this as well as anybody. When you’re trying to change organizations, it takes time, it takes work, it takes effort and it’s hard. And behavioral safety is no different. The challenges in a nutshell, is these cards would turn into kind of tick the box activities where particularly when quotas were put in.
So, we’ve got a quota due to a month. Lo and behold, you get a flood of checklists coming in the last day of the month. And I would see some of them. They would be like a checklist. It would be a photocopied check on how they did well. And I’m like, man, if you’re going to into it, you know, I mean, I remember we had to get serious talking about people that had had paid their kids to fill in lots of forms so that at the end of the month they could mail them in as they will win them, I guess.
But exactly. Training your kids at a young age to photocopy.
Yeah, I had a guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one time tell me. And he kept repeating it. It’s about people, not paper. It’s about people in that paper. And he said that just enough time for that kind of stuck with me. It’s not about the paper and matter of fact, it’s not about the observations as much as it is about the conversation. So, one of the challenges of the behavioral therapy is everyone gets locked in on these cards.
It’s about people talking to each other. And the hope is when it’s done correctly, if you’re doing those observations the right way, you can have people talking to each other or card. I’d rather have a good discussion without a piece of paper than fill something out, drop it off and never talk about it. So, part of the plateau is it became bureaucratic. Fill out the cards, get the cards. And people are tracking a number of cards down.
They’re not looking, in some cases looking at the results. They’re not looking at percentages. They’re not looking at comments that they’re not looking at suggested action items. They’re just clicking the box. So that was a long answer. Sorry, there for a short question, but I think one of the primary challenges with the plateau becomes programmatic instead of doing it for the right reasons.
And in those instances, it may be a question of reenergizing what you’ve got to get by and more involved. Because I agree so much with what you’re saying. It’s not about the piece of paper. It’s about the quality of the conversation. I would look at piece of paper as a conversation starter, but not the actual act or accomplishment that’s necessary.
What’s in it for me is that the big question and there is value in charting percent safe score. So you get five or six things that, by the way, the people that are designing the card and that’s one of the problems with these off the shelf things or these online training things. It’s like there’s no employee engagement. We did research years ago sponsored by Naish, looking at a manufacturing facility, has the group got interactive training and they design their own cards and how to use it.
The other half got rote training. And here’s the card and I got to do it. The people that were actively involved in creating their own cards and tools for use them seven times more than the people that did the seminar. See that it’s huge, huge, huge, huge involvement. And they had investment in it. But they’re. But there’s a lot to do there. I mean, you want to see percentage wise, what are we looking at?
And it shouldn’t be a hard hat. Just checking the box. We should be looking at things like, you know, like a tiger taking off in a confined space entry. These are there some serious things there we need to be paying attention to and if we can get good data out of it. But the bottom line for employees is what’s in it for me? Good conversations, changes being made, system improvements being made versus these other efforts of trying to get involvement by quotas or incentives and.
All these artificial levers, it’s like trying to manage the economy with these false artificial things that are short term if you need to have the fundamentals there. And the fundamental for an economy is the one thing the fundamentals here is simply what’s in it for me, from the employee perspective, I see value. And when that’s done, you fight less on these plateaus. There are other things you can do rotating steering teams, changing of the cards at a human performance, elements to the cards, too.
But those are ways to kind of keep things fresh and make it sort of a living, breathing, ongoing thing.
I love it. You touch a little bit on the human performance tools there and looking at systems completely agree. I think that sometimes organizations get focused on it’s just about the behavior and they forget about the system and how it creates any further thoughts. You want to touch on the human performance side in the integration of those themes?
I think that’s a really good question. Years ago, when behavioral safety took off, there were cognitive psychologists that were out there, Michael Chertoff, one that comes to mind. And there was a lot of good information there in terms of attitudes matter. What I’m thinking matters when I’m feeling matters and the behavioral folk’s kind of thumb their nose at it a bit, particularly because, you know, they’re looking at science and numbers and data, not feelings. But that’s a mistake.
And because as you and I have talked about many times, attitudes, influence, behavior and vice versa, and behaviors influence results and dismissing cognitive and the psychology of it. It’s funny, it’s coming back now in terms of neuroscience. So, we’ve kind of come back around. We named it just like the human performance. Folks are kind of renaming some of the stuff that was done by Becker and other years ago. It’s nothing new, but it’s been repackaged and marketed, and the neuroscience is a bit different than what was done before that.
But there are similarities. My point to that is there’s dogmatic approach of one versus the other is just harmful. It’s a business driven. Its ego driven. It’s territorial, and it’s not helpful. We need a holistic approach. Responsible consultants are tying in all elements to try to help their clients, to try to fit their needs and meet their needs, help them out. And then this cognitive if it’s behavioral, if it’s human performance, it’s all helpful.
So that’s the long answer. The short answer is there are things you can do if you’ve got an existing behavioral safety process and there’s benefits of doing that to make the card a little bit better. One of my frustrations is it becomes a check the box. There should be questions on there, like what do you need? What scares you about the job? What tools would be helpful? Are the procedure changes? How can we improve this job? What scares you?
What these questions are open, and the questions and they get people talking. And if we respond to them and 17 people said there’s a scaffolding issue over here, we got to deal with it and we respond to it, all of a sudden, these cards are helping me because now I got this issue and it’s been it’s been addressed. So, it’s more open. It’s more interactive. It feels less like a it feels more conversational. So, these peer checks, which are kind of the human performance way of getting at these observations, I think the peer checks integrated with behavioral safety cards is a good solution.
It’s great, great, great comments, great, great insights and on the cognitive side and any other thoughts you want to add in terms of the elements, you brought in a lot of different themes there in terms of the value. I completely agree. I think behavioral components, you obviously need to shift behaviors to get the right results. But my attitude around safety, my sense of control, the risk, my sense of ownership over what I’m doing, all critical, important elements that need to be factored in beyond those conversations.
But also, they will help those conversations because the more I see what’s in it for me, the more I’m going to have put in effort and value in the conversations I’m having with appear on how to improve safety.
I like to flip it around and ask you that question of think you’d have more fun answering it to me, the personal matters. You know, we’ve seen it with leaders that are switched on and those that aren’t. And if you feel it, it’s obvious. It’s obviously different to people when you’re talking about it, if you feel it versus, you’re saying it because you’re supposed to say it so that however we get to that point, that personal line, and I like how you kind of will press leaders, especially executives, what is your personal line within a few wires?
Why does this matter? And challenge people to really think about that? You know, we talk about, you know, the personal fight for us, the big five, whatever, in terms of why we’re staying safe. It changes the narrative from war compliance to I’m doing this for something. I’m doing it for my family. I’m doing because I want to retire and break 80 playing golf before I die. And whatever it is, that personal feeling and the reason and the mission one is to be clear, it needs to be shared with people because as you said, that’s kind of the impetus for a lot of behavioral change efforts, is you got to feel it first.
And keeping in mind behavior shift attitudes to be able to get better, my attitudes get better. So, it’s sort of the era goes both ways between attitudes and behaviors, but they’re both important.
So, Josh, I couldn’t agree more. I think your point on the on the why is it important? As important one, I meet this reflection a couple of years back and I started realizing that all the leaders I was talking to that were driving substantial changes in terms of safety performance. And there was one common trait. They all had a very strong desire for why safety matter and they showed up a different way. And when you’re talking about from a cognitive psychology standpoint, a lot of people are talking about the attitude, belief, mindset of a team member in terms of how I look at risk.
I would look at safety in general. I look at my personal ownership, but I start realizing that there was this other element, which was how the leader was showing up. And as you as he said, as you start pushing people to think as to why you care about safety and articulate that it creates a very strong conviction. And I’ve seen it in some organizations where you work with one leader who starts really thinking about what’s my whilst on that origin story around safety.
And then I start convening with leaders and suddenly the leaders start paying attention and they’re like, OK, I need to do this. I need to actually drive observations. I need to show active care when I’m in the field. And something as simple as really thinking about somebody’s origin story, their way around safety became so critical to drive lot of the changes. So, we touch on different topics. Josh, we’ve talked a little bit about cognitive psychology.
We talked a little bit about human performance tools. We’ve talked a little bit about how to bolster the behavior-based safety program that you’ve got. Maybe if it wasn’t done well because you got out of a Cracker Jack Box at some point in time, what are some of the things that that you can do to bring it to life in an organization, to drive improvements to the next level, to push through the plateau?
From a big picture perspective, I was with a client years ago and they said, what’s the key to improving safety culture? And I said, get input from people that are on the job doing the job and respond to it. And she’s like, OK, what else? There’s nothing else. It’s not true. There’s more. But I wanted to reinforce the point. You’re not listening to your folks. There are all these fancy initiatives that are going out with all these beautiful conversations and posters and you’re not talking to people.
So, bring in bringing it to life. That employee engagement piece is critical. You know, we mentioned I like the internal locus of control from getting broader in the 60s, and it’s as important now as it was 60 years ago. My personal ownership and engagement are key. And we talk about Ben bendir and self-efficacy. And I got to believe I can do it. There’s a lot of these factors that have not gone out of style. It still matters.
So, we’ve got to get input from people, get their engagement, whether it’s with observations, whether it’s with close calls and a learning environment context. There’s a lot of system ways where we need to get that engagement. But as an employee, I’m not stupid. And if you if you’re trying and we’re trying to get efforts and you’re asking me questions, it could be procedures. It could be anything. It feels different to me, even though it’s not perfect.
You’re engaging me. You’re listening to me. You’re hearing me. And I appreciate the effort. And when companies do that, it’s a night and day difference versus those that are rolling things out top down here it is not. Go do it. Failing people, it frustrates them. And it leads to things that look good on paper, but they don’t look good. And in reality.
And at the end of the day, we’ve talked about this before, when I simplify safety, I always talk about you need to have great methods, procedures, policies. So, the quality of what you’ve got has to be top notch. Then you’ve got to have acceptance, people following the rules when nobody’s watching, doing the right thing, wanting to do it, wanting to follow policies and procedures. Because if you got great policies and procedures that nobody’s following it.
They look great on paper. But that’s the extent of where you’re getting results. And then you need to focus attention on the job at hand, knowing of your limitations and things of that nature. So those are really the three components. And what you’re touching on is I’ve never seen people want to do something. If they had no say in this right. It’s what’s in it for me. You listen to a peer of mine; it doesn’t mean you need to drive a democracy or get a consensus across the organization.
But seeking that input, such a simple thing is so key. If you want people doing things and you get better decisions and you agree. I’ve seen so many goofy blanket calls. I’ve seen people walking around with their safety glasses on, but no lenses on them saying hi to me like it’s just the most normal thing in the world because they were upset, they had to wear safety glasses in areas where they were needed. And I’ve got more extreme examples.
I mean, I’ve got a bunch of goofy stories, I’ll tell you another time. But these blanket policies come down to wire people following them because they don’t make sense, because you never talk to the person that’s doing the work in the first place. So, you know, it’s just it’s just simple. I don’t know if you get better decisions when you talk to people, you get more acceptance from people because they have a say. So, like you said, and I’m getting a little bit wound up just because it upsets me sometimes because so many of these training sessions with employers for decades hearing about all these issues, and it’s just not reaching folks sometimes.
And it’s just it’s unfortunate because you have conscientious leaders trying to do the right thing. And that simple stuff like you said, that maybe it’s not so simple, but the important step of getting input from folks and responding to it brings life to everything we’re doing. So, from a larger perspective, when we’re trying to reenergize behavior or see any part of that as refresher training, it’s really safety culture training, but focusing on behaviors, but also the cognitive side, like you said, also the human performance side, integrate some of the human performance elements into behavioral safety processes.
We do commitment workshop with leaders after training, so it doesn’t feel like and we keep it fresh, keep it live where they talk about specific things they’re going to do, moving forward to put their good intentions into place. There’s a lot of things that need to be going on. It all starts with that belief and feeling it. But there’s a lot of things we can do from a system perspective, from a behavioral perspective to increase that discretion, discretionary effort and ultimately better safety, culture, and reduction of serious injuries.
And they tell is because those shifts happen, we think everything’s fine. All of a sudden there’s an explosion kills eight people. We find out when we start doing an investigation after the fact. All these little things were out there, and people knew about it, didn’t say anything. And that’s a problem.
That’s a huge problem. Is what you don’t know. Is it more dangerous in many cases than anything else? Because you’re not dealing with it. You’re not learning. You’re not getting better. And every big incident that I’ve ever heard of always started with because there was information that existed that was known but didn’t get to the point where somebody could act on it and make sure it wouldn’t get into something serious. Like any other thoughts you’d bring in.
You’ve brought in a lot of really valuable ideas. We’ve kind of gone over in different directions, but great, great input in terms of how to reenergize your safety programs. I love what you’re talking about in terms of holistic approach. My biggest pet peeve in management has been anybody who is dogmatic about this one size fits all approach to everything because there is never such a thing. There’s no silver bullet and management. If there was, whoever invented it would be down in in a bunker somewhere, enjoying life on a beach next to a bumper bunk and a huge mansion.
There is no such thing as a silver bullet. It’s a question of kind of combining learnings from different pieces. Any other closing thoughts?
No, I’ll just echo what you just said. It’s either ego or it’s for its business interest. When there’s a usually when there’s that strong of a dogma. I’ll just I’ll say this in closing, and this may sound a bit sale you don’t mean to do, but it’s gone with what you know, what I know is assessed on the phone and find out what you got to keep doing it. What is not so good at, try to get better, get a strategic plan together.
And that stuff that we help with, like who’s going to do what when? Let’s lay it out. I mean, just like you on a football game, many of us lamenting college football may or may not continue this year with a good word. As Nick Saban to an Alabama, he’s getting a specific game plan based on strengths and weaknesses and research. And there’s a whole bunch of effort that goes into planning. Organizations should be doing the same thing.
So, assess plan. And when you do training and other interventions, as you mentioned, make a more holistic, people need to feel it and then work on sustain it. And that’s from leaders’ behaviors that could be peer check. There’s a lot of ways to sustain that, but that’s your that’s your path forward, I think, beyond that plateau you had mentioned earlier.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for coming back on the show, Josh, and sharing quite a few great insights in terms of the next frontier of improvements and giving great ideas to people to start charting their next step in the journey and look forward to having you another time on the show. I’m sure we’ll have other topics to explore.
Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your teams, you, your future. Come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru, Eric Michrowski.
Read more about Behaviour Based Safety (BBS): https://www.propulo.com/bbs/
Please read more in Josh’s related blog about Behaviour Based Safety (BBS): https://www.propulo.com/blog/bbs-2-0-fueling-discretionary-effort-to-prevent-sifs/
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ABOUT THE GUEST
Dr. Josh Williams is a Partner with Propulo Consulting, a global management consulting firm delivering significant and sustainable improvements in organizational performance. For over 20 years Josh has partnered with clients around the world to drive increased discretionary effort and improved strategic execution. He’s the author of Keeping People Safe: The Human Dynamics of Injury Prevention and received the Cambridge Center National First Prize for his research on behavioral safety feedback.