Nine 'Secret' Keys to Unlock Breakthrough Results

High-results companies find creative and changing mechanisms for reviewing and reinforcing new mental and physical skillsets.

How do you attain breakthrough results in safety -- especially with pervasive problems such as strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls, and hand injuries? This is especially important when these have strong "personal" (off-work) or environmental contributors that are difficult to control, and where it seems that merely eking out incremental safety improvements is frustratingly OH-so-slow and difficult.

But it does happen. In fact, companies we've worked with have reported results that are eye-opening: An international auto manufacturer saw an "80 percent reduction in soft-tissue injuries/worker’s comp claims," a major airline with "53 percent decrease in strains/sprains," a large oil company had "42 percent fewer slips, trips and falls," an energy producer saw "60 percent fewer claims, 66 percent less costs," a heavy manufacturer went "four years without a lost-time injury," a U.S.-wide transportation company cut its incidence rate exactly in half in one year, a large service company reported "46 percent reduction in hand and finger injuries" -- and much more.

Of course, each of these organizations is different, with its own exposures and dedicated culture. But here's the critical question: Is there anything they do in common to get such great results? No surprise, the answer is YES:

1. Focus individually and internally. They understand that everyone is the director of their own safety, and the objective is to elevate each person's safety leadership. So these winning companies strategized and implemented approaches that help people become more in control of their own actions and safety.

2. Get the attention of everyone, from top managers to line supervisors to workers. They accomplish this by surprising and amazing people with what’s possible for them; they show others how they can achieve significant personal improvements with relatively little extra effort. Emphasis is on individual results, rather than solely on "doing what's good for the company."

3. Harness energetics. To get as many people as possible involved in considering and trying out new methods, these highly successful organizations introduce these as enjoyable. They move away from "same old" messages and ways of delivering them ("Do this so you don't get hurt or in trouble or written up," etc.) and they harness the power of individual discovery, thereby encouraging all to try out new methods for themselves and make their own decisions. They find that one personal "Aha!" moment is worth millions of "You-shoulds" or "You-have-tos."

4. Emphasize improvements in practical skills. They focused on transferring tangible skills rather than expecting only "awareness" or memorizing to automatically lead people to adhere to minute policies and procedures. They focus on actions anchored in workers' actual daily tasks, not bemoaning or looking to scapegoat others for disappointing trailing indicators.

They enlist the three levels of building change: First, people become more receptive and interested in improving the quality of their safety actions. Second, they engage in, practice, these actions. Finally, they measure a range of statistical results -- verifiable improvements. Like erecting a building, they first laid a strong receptivity foundation strengthened with the rebar of actions and avoided the temptation of trying to leap directly to "zero injuries," which often can result in hiding, not fixing, problems. They know that without a strong base, trailing indicator improvements won't be sustained.

5. Focus both at home and at work. These companies show specific methods and techniques can make a beneficial impact on off-work applications of personal interest -- to hobbies, sports, common at-home tasks, those involving children and older relatives, etc. They understand that at-home activities can lead to at-work actions or accidents, so helping imbue safe actions off-work can improve at-work defaults and also reduce cumulative trauma piled on from "clocked-out" activities.

6. Enlist leaders on all levels, so that Executives, Managers, and Front-line Supervisors are less likely to undercut applications of new actions. Maximally -- and this frequently occurs -- they initially drive and then continue to support desired changes in actions. Because everyone can be susceptible to soft-tissue/strains/sprains and slips/trips/falls, the methods that address these are appropriate for each person in the company, title or tasks notwithstanding. High-performing organizations have found that addressing these universal injuries actually provides a common ground of safety practices that works for all, thereby unifying safety culture.

7. Develop peer-to-peer processes for transmitting and setting new skills and methods. So rather than "experts" being the only source for disseminating new information, methods or skills, these come as much from another worker doing similar work. These "safety catalysts" then informally coach and reinforce their peers to make it more likely new mental and physical approaches take.

Respect is a two-way street. To develop sustaining personal safety practices, it's essential to listen to workers' concerns, needs, and applications; whereas process safety generally necessitates workers' listening to and following pre-set procedures. By listening to workers' personal safety concerns, wise companies have found workers will, in turn, be more likely to listen to and adopt process safety and other procedures.

8. Make it easy to change. Rather than expecting one-fell-swoop massive change in actions, successful organizations adopt a "Small Changes Make Large Differences" approach. They make complex tasks as simple to do as possible, change default habits in bite-sized ways, and aim to get efficient & noticeable results without overburdening already hard-working people.

9. Develop self-reinforcing systems & surround reminders. People learn and change actions by repetition -- but successful companies understand that, actually to be practiced, repetition has to have some variation to maintain attention and interest. Sports instructors know they have to somewhat vary their drills. Similarly, high-results companies find creative and changing mechanisms for reviewing and reinforcing new mental and physical skillsets.

High-results companies aren't satisfied with one-cycle improvements; they look for ways that elevate their organizational culture. Truly engaging workers from the ground up can lead to lasting communication and performance improvements.

There's an old martial arts expression that "the best secrets keep themselves." Talking and philosophizing is not enough. Breakthrough improvements come only from taking actions that emanate from a consistent base. So if these nine keys make sense to you, consider which you are already doing, which ones not, and why. If many other companies can achieve breakthrough results, can't you, too?

This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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