Quantum Cultural Change

Interested in propelling stronger safety culture? Quantum Physics proclaims energy moves both in waves of motion and as individual particles. This describes forces such as sound and light—and can also be effectively applied to elevating safety culture.

Movement of change oscillates up and down; it's not continuous by nature. Ever watch the tide roll in? Waves don't always build incrementally with each wave creeping further up the shore. In reality, a wave of magnitude five might roll in, followed by several smaller waves. The sum is forward but not geometric progression. Human and organizational nature can work the same way.

Real progression toward sustaining improvements is much more than scampering up, down, sideways, repeat if necessary. Regrettably, perhaps a "sine" of the times, many companies act as if they don't realize this, and have lots of activity with little lasting movement forward. But if you wish to propel significant change, consider these four quantum strategies:

1. Develop Time-Lapse Vision to monitor change. Remember and remind others that desired change is not smoothly continuous. Setbacks will happen. The important point is when there's an apparent setback to adherence to your message, don't give up and abandon your efforts. ("Why bother? They'll never change!") Dispassionately determine whether indeed you may be observing the "smaller waves" rolling back out, whether you are still progressing toward desired objectives (though perhaps more indirectly than you would prefer).

A good perspective to develop is Time-Lapse Vision. Impatience doesn't make waves come in any faster than does continually watching a newly planted seed make it grow more quickly. A plant's—and culture's—growth often occurs too gradually to be observed by the naked eye. Are you, like me, amazed by time-lapse photos of nature changing? By taking snapshots through a range of measurements of your culture over a period of time, you'll more accurately be able to monitor its growth or stasis.

2. Direct the right forces for next level improvements. Like the old saying, "Dress for the job you want, not the one you have," select and incorporate one or two characteristics of next-level Safety Culture (see http://ohsonline.com/articles/2008/05/next-level-safetycultures. aspx). In choosing what to adopt, you might ask yourself:

  • Which actions would provide the biggest impact/leverage, i.e., affect the most people over time (including senior management)?
  • Which actions are easiest to put into place, even partially?
  • Which actions are within your control?
Quantum change is delivered one step at a time, but over and over each step has to feel readily doable when it's taking place (to reduce threat, give people an opportunity to comfortably incorporate changes while still performing other tasks to an acceptable level). In retrospect, these improvements may seem to have happened quickly. We've seen "amazing" cultural changes that blossomed within mere months.

3. Simultaneously enlist both waves and particles. Screen for changes in group thought about safety. For example, Alaska Tanker Company CEO and safety evangelist Anil Mathur promotes and monitors the "quality of the overall safety conversations."

But also turn around the individual packets—those cynical or angry workers who are influential with their peers. Our experience is, turned-off or angry employees can often be quickly turned around to become motivated safety advocates. Key ingredients in this cultural shift are the right individual attention, strong contact communications, practical skillsets, and planned structured opportunities to make a real difference.

My colleague Ron Bowles works with companies to select, develop, and support "Multipliers." The best candidates are line employees who are groomed to transmit, strengthen, and distribute action/behavioral improvements; conduit through safety messages; and bring back feedback essential for course correction. Provide these "particles" with the particular training they need to understand, assimilate, and communicate principles—not just expected policies and procedures—in their own way. Think of Multipliers as active signal boosters on the ground level and in field, much more than just passive carriers of management's preset message. Remember that diversity is a fact of physical nature; Quantum Mechanics contends individual particles act differently.

4. "Quantum" also means "measured." Develop a series of measures to determine how you are moving in relation to your objectives. Go beyond clipboard checklists to include interviews ("To what degree do co-workers use best PPE, on a one-to-five scale?"), "quality of safety conversations"/level of participation spread in safety meetings, employee morale, reflections of company commitment to safety, and more.

Potential energy is a key to understanding physics and safety. Quantum safety works smoothly when particular leaders provide challenge, confidence, energy, and support. Challenge others to try new actions while you issue forth a wave of confidence. Expect more from people because of their potentials; communicate continuously you know they can go beyond their current level of actions. Start right now by expecting more from yourself.

Generate and spread energy through crackling workforce involvement and from everyone, seeing positive results from any wave of individual and organizational successes.

This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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