Getting Results from Safety Meetings

THE meeting notice has been sent, the room reserved, the flip charts are in place, and the stale donuts are arranged next to the coffee. People file in and take their seats.Over the years, untold hours have been spent in safety meetings. The lack of concrete results for all of these hours is a loss none of us can afford. To achieve results from safety meetings necessitates that the person who called the meeting focus on its purpose and desired outcomes. The best way to accomplish this is to use a model called "POP." This model will keep the group focused and on task.

In addition, adhering to this model will prevent the frustration that can easily build during a mandatory safety meeting that doesn't seem to going anywhere. Start every meeting with a POP statement:

  • Purpose. This is a mini mission statement. Why are we meeting anyway? It may sound trivial, but most often the people in the room are not on the same wavelength. Start with an open-ended question: "What is our purpose for this meeting?" With very few exceptions, there is not universal agreement. Go through a process of writing on the flip chart the ideas and statements of the participants until agreement on the purpose is reached. Subsequent meetings by this group need to restate the purpose and make sure it is still on target. If the meeting starts to wander or go off on a tangent, ask whether this current topic is "on purpose" to get back to the agreed-upon direction. As all parties participated in setting the purpose, there is little difficulty getting back on topic. A typical safety purpose from one of these meetings might look like this: "Develop safety accountabilities for all levels of our organization that will help us eliminate injuries."
  • Outcomes. What will be accomplished when the stated purpose is achieved? This is a brainstorm list of the problems the meeting is designed to solve. It is also the metric for whether or not the tasks the group set out to do have been accomplished. The whole team or group participates in setting these outcomes and therefore seeks complete agreement as to definitions of success. This, in turn, eliminates future squabbles as to why the work is being done. In addition, it helps eliminate random discussions that do not take the group closer to the desired outcome. A typical set of outcomes for our safety team would include: "Accountabilities that make a difference in safety for every job in the facility; A tracking system to follow accomplishment of these accountabilities; A reward system that reinforces these activities; Reduced injury frequency as a result of doing this work well."
  • Process. How will we accomplish our Purpose and Outcomes? Typically, what follows is a description of how the team will work. Often, this is to "Split up into small problem-solving focus teams that have the 'volunteers' needed to accomplish the 'bite-sized' tasks they are working on." Why volunteers? Teams that assign people to tasks often get the wrong people on the wrong task, leading to struggles and failure. If the people get to place themselves in performance zones where they are comfortable, they are much more likely to succeed. If there aren't enough volunteers to do all the work in the time frame allotted to accomplish the outcome, time, resources, or both must increase. This is not a crisis team; it is an improvement team that works the continuous improvement process. If no one wants to work on the needed tasks, then the leader does them, other people are asked, or the task goes undone until a later time when people, resources, and time are available.

Use an Action Item Matrix
There usually are a significant number of tasks that need to be done by a variety of people in varying time frames. To effectively manage this wide spectrum, use an Action Item Matrix. This AIM is a simple five-column spreadsheet:

  • Item number. A number (1 through N) for each item on the list. As action items are completed they are moved to the bottom of the list--not discarded. In this way, there is always a record of what has been completed, as well as what still needs to be done.
  • Task to be accomplished. This is a simple, succinct statement of what the problem is. Each task (action item) is a small, bite-sized chunk of the bigger problem that is the purpose statement of the team.
  • The team. This is a list of the volunteers who have agreed to accomplish this action item. There may be one or more, or in some cases no one because this is a future item that is not ready to be worked on. Use initials or first names of team members to conserve space.
  • The date. This is the next report date for the task team on this action item. Sometimes it is a completion date, sometimes a progress report date.
  • Comments. Succinctly write down whatever is pertinent to the action item (e.g., "awaiting vendor quote" or some such appropriate comment).
  • A condensed example of an AIM form for the safety accountability team is:

ACTION ITEMS MATRIX--Accountability Team

TEAM

DATE: 6-27-02

Members: Wolf, Lowery, Jennings, Williamsen, Brown, Morrison, Gilbert

ITEM

ACTION ITEM

WHO

TARGET DATE

COMMENTS

1

List all job titles/functions

Morrison

7-2-02

In database

2

Hand out accountabilities from company "xyz" for examples

Jennings

7-2-02

Will be e-mailed

3

Each team member to list own safety accountabilities

Team

8-27-02

Judy to put in DB

4

Critique accountabilities

Team

Until completed

Final copy review by safety council and other potential parties

The team now has its marching orders, the POP statement, and its progress tracking mechanism, the Action Item Matrix. How often should the team meet? Sub teams meet more frequently as appropriate to their individual work and task (action item) schedules. These sub teams are the problem-solving units. The whole team meets to review progress once every two weeks. More frequent full team meetings don't give the sub teams time to do their tasks. Less frequent meetings don't keep enough pressure on the sub teams to close their action items.

This simple, effective team meeting process works. It has been used in corporations that developed a nationwide safety system. In one large corporation, a whole safety system was developed from scratch in less than nine months. This system reduced serious injuries by more than 80 percent in its first two years.

This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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