Zero Injuries Is Not Your Goal

Accidents are simply another kind of defect -- a deviation from the standard of perfection. And, like quality, these defects must be detected and eliminated at the moment they first appear.

It was 1981, and I was in Danville, Va. I followed Tom, the safety director, through a dark, old textile mill, walking on heart-of-pine floors that probably had seen workers come and go for more than a hundred years. The smell of machine oil mixed with the warm smell of cotton. The textile machines hummed away, spinning out yard after yard of fabric.

I watched the workers busily monitoring the machines to keep them running at peak efficiency and noted many of them had T-shirts emblazoned with a slogan: Zero Injuries -- Our Goal.

On the walls in every breakroom, the same "Zero Injuries" slogan was repeated on posters, coffee mugs, you name it. I was impressed by the passion in this culture to reach zero injuries, so I asked Tom about his plant's safety record. "Well, Bill, I'll be honest. We've made huge gains in safety over the last five years, but now it seems that reaching zero is impossible," he admitted. "The closer we get to zero, the harder it becomes to show improvement. We've started to plateau or 'flat line,' and my concern is that we'll do a 'hockey stick' and trend back up."

With some 1,500 employees, Tom's plant routinely celebrated million-hour milestones, fed people steak dinners, and the like. But it still had a steady stream of injuries that wouldn't go away. Tom's problem was like that of many other cultures: They have chased the goal of Zero Injuries year after year, only to find it to be more elusive than the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

At that moment, I looked Tom dead in the eye and told him part of his problem was that he was chasing the wrong goal. I told Tom what I've told thousands of safety leaders around the world for more than 30 years: Zero injuries is not your goal.

"Huh? What did you say, Bill?"

If you're thinking this, it's completely normal. Usually I get a degree of "shock and awe" when I say this to audiences. They're not quite sure I'm in my right mind. But I am completely serious. Zero injuries should not be your goal. Until leaders understand that there is a level of safety beyond zero, they will be stuck on the dreaded "hockey stick plateau" in their safety performance.

Why is it that chasing Zero Injuries eventually produces this plateau? To get at this answer, we need to look into the world of quality improvement. In particular, I want to consider the work of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Statistical Process Control and general-all-around-quality guru.

For those of you who don't know who Deming was, I'll give you the short version. After World War II, Dr. Deming approached the U.S. automakers and told them if they would listen to his somewhat radical theories on quality improvement, they could revolutionize quality, make vehicles that would last longer, and build more loyal customers. There was just one problem with Deming's idea: The big three automakers actually were delighted when something went wrong with a car, as long as it was out of warranty. If enough things failed on a car, then the customer would bring it to the dealership and trade it for a new one. This strategy even had a name: "planned obsolescence."

Planned obsolescence is why, as a little boy just 6 years old, I remember admiring the beautiful chrome "Cadillac" emblem inside my dad's 1969 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. About two years after Dad bought his new Caddy, right on schedule, those emblems would fall off. This "defect" provided a pretty big NIC for my Dad (a negative, immediate, and certain consequence). I'm not sure what else went wrong on Dad's car, but soon enough, he headed for the dealership to swap for a new car (a very big PIC for both him and me!). "Planned obsolescence" had sold another car.

Strange as it may seem, this strategy of building poor quality into a product was a PFC (positive, future, certain) consequence for the major U.S. automakers in the fifties and sixties.

As you might imagine, Deming's words of wisdom fell on deaf ears at the Big 3. That's why he went to Japan.

Here, as is often the case, one man's NIC is another man's PIC. The Japanese (who were looking for ways to grab U.S. market share) listened to Deming and designed quality into their products, making them better, cheaper, and more fuel efficient than their U.S. competition. Needless to say, the Japanese taught U.S. manufacturers a vital lesson in quality versus planned obsolescence and about PICS versus NICS in product design and market share.

How Quality Relates to Safety and Recognition
In a nutshell, here’s how Deming gave the Japanese the winning hand in quality.

When a factory produces a part that is defective and fails to meet specifications, then the part must be either scrapped or reworked. Or, worse yet, it ships to the customer, creating an unhappy customer who eventually stops buying the product. Any of these options is expensive and wasteful. Deming taught that quality should be measured at every step in the process. Rather than get the car fully assembled and counting defects at the end of the line, every step in the assembly process needed to have statistical analysis to see whether the process was in control or out of control. Hence the name "Statistical Process Control."

Deming and other quality leaders have revolutionized manufacturing methods today. Measuring quality now involves hundreds and sometimes thousands of interim checks to be sure quality standards are met at each and every part of the product's birth cycle.

How does all this relate to safety? I remember being at Boeing with a talented group of leaders, and I told them I had a crazy idea for them. Instead of spending so much money on quality assurance personnel and quality testing for their aircraft, I suggested they might fire their whole quality department and save a lot of money.

In its place, they should put up posters, hand out T-shirts that say "Zero Defects: Our Goal," and tell the employees to "Build a good quality plane!" And lastly, measure quality by the number of customer complaints they get on each aircraft.

Can Boeing run their company this way? What do you think?

Can you run your company this way? Not a chance. Everyone agrees it would be impossible to run a company this way; quality is something that must be integrated with production every step of the way. But that is exactly how we run safety today in most companies.

We put up posters that say "Zero Injuries Is Our Goal" and we tell the employees to "Be safe, now! You hear?" Next, we count the "safety defects" after they have occurred -- e.g., how many recordable injuries were there last month? What is our incidence rate? Did we have any fatalities? Did we get our safety award bonus?

Accidents are simply another kind of defect -- a deviation from the standard of perfection. And, like quality, these defects must be detected and eliminated at the moment they first appear. My good friend Kenny Sawyer says that companies with injuries "rehearse those injuries thousands of time until they get them right." What Kenny is saying is that often there are many "early warning" behavioral indicators that tell us an injury is going to happen. All too often, these at-risk behaviors are ignored due to the perceived importance of production and profits.

In light of all this, I would like to suggest a better slogan for your next company T-shirt and poster campaign: "Our New Goal: Zero Unsafe Behaviors & Conditions."

Will you ever fully achieve this goal? Maybe. Maybe not. But if you chase zero unsafe behaviors, you will finally get to zero injuries, or darn near close. You will instill in your culture the idea that it's not OK to "rehearse for a fatality."

Later today, why don't you go tear down all those old "Zero Injury" signs and posters you have displayed? Put up new ones with my slogan above. You don't owe me any money for using it. If it saves just one life, that will be more than enough payment for me. Visit if you want to learn more.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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