Occupational Health & Safety

Higher Leadership Math

Malcolm Gladwell referred to "The Law of the Few" -- that it takes only a few of the right people to champion an idea that virally ignites change.

Interested in higher magnitude results? Apply leadership math to your calculations.

Many professionals and executives value importance of "the numbers," metrics they perceive reflecting the true state of an organization. Truly change the mathematical indicators (such as Lost Time Incident/Injury/Illness Rate) and you've improved functioning - in Safety, productivity, buy-in, and other key areas.

It's possible, but not always easy, to directly measure every critical and ever-changing state within an organization; there are several ways to better use math to leverage organizational results.

The first is to enhance the "Productivity ratio." Productivity is defined as a fraction, Output over Input. Logically, there are two main contrasting ways to raise your productivity: 1. Lower your input (working leaner) while maintaining same output, or 2. Increase your returns faster than what you put in (leveraging resources).

Many companies usually try "Lowering input" first, exemplified in cutting numbers of employees to the minimum or in adopting lean approaches to manufacturing or service. The key here is to maintain in some way at least the same level of output; this can be tricky to sustain over time if workers fatigue or morale plummets. The flip side enlists harnessing the power of negative thinking -- identifying, and then reducing, obstacles to higher performance. I've written more extensively about this in my June 2011 OH&S column, "Leadership: Letting Forces Be With You."

You can increase output by getting more out of existing tools, training, and techniques. This still may even require expending resources; but when this equation works out, what you get back expands significantly faster than what you put in.

Remember, we're trying to achieve a multiplying effect, rather than just spend more to get the same level of gains. In fact, in order to raise the productivity fraction, you'll have to elevate the numerator, Output, much higher than the denominator, Input. For example, if your current level of Productivity is 2.0 (2/1), raising Input one notch to "2" requires increasing Output two levels (from 2 to 4) just to stay even!

Further, we've found there are diminishing returns in just increasing x ergonomic design and other tool interventions; two scissor lifts are unlikely to keep a work team twice as safe as one. Ditto for multiple sets of gloves, shoes, machine guards, etc.

And in organizations that already have an adequate set of rules, more policies and procedures don't make for greater safety performance. In actuality, sometimes further adding more specific requirements to remember, follow and measure can bog people down or even create confusion or pushback.

But Multiplying Safety Leadership is one strategy that has shown to elicit significant returns. Malcolm Gladwell referred to "The Law of the Few" -- that it takes only a few of the right people to champion an idea that virally ignites change.

We've similarly found another principle operating, that of "Critical Mass" (think nuclear physics); that is, having a sufficient number of "The Few" permeating a company to overcome the friction of bureaucracy, resistance, and skepticism. In other words, you need enough "Few" to fission change in actions and culture.

How can you further enlist Leadership Math?

  • Multiplize. Select, train, and support Peer Safety Catalysts; in effect, create committed deputies. Ranae Adee, former EHS Director for a Pfizer manufacturing facility, arranged for a group of carefully selected employees to become trained in a system for elevating personal responsibility while teaching practical skills for soft-tissue safety, then providing the time and support to catalyze improvements in daily actions. Results were wildly successful, to the extent that other plants within the company benchmarked her planning and process. Ranae said, "It was like we added 14 people to the Safety office."
  • Algebrize. Analyze what variables might determine critical leadership leading indicators such as engagement, receptivity, and actions. By figuring out, then affecting these, you will be in a better position to influence productive results.
  • Metricize. Anything can be quantified -- important leading signals, employee reactions, use of desired actions, perception of progress toward higher-level safety culture, engagement, self-determination, etc. These can be sampled at selected intervals and assessed for trends and progress. Don't default to only measuring and reporting on the "same old" observed behavior or trailing statistical indicators.
  • Geometrize. Proximity equals power. Create communications systems so these are delivered as close to receivers as feasible; face-to-face interactions are stronger than phone calls, which in turn are more persuasive than e-mail. The least powerful communications are the most distant, such as generic web-based announcements.

Here's how it adds up. Highest-level safety is a lifestyle, not a "choice" or just saying the "right" words. Logical leadership can enlist the power of mathematics to influence lifestyles and actions.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director of Strategic Safety Associates and MoveSMART®. To contact him, email rpater@movesmart.com.

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