Leading Indicators For Breaking Through Persistent Injuries

Ultimately, applying leading indicators to a high level means first unearthing the alternate universe of "what could have been done better" and then measuring these desired actions.

Is your company beset with tenacious injuries, persistent problems that stubbornly seem to keep on keeping on? These typically include soft tissue injuries/strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls, hand injuries, driving accidents, struck-by/struck against incidents. They weaken a company's workforce, safety record, culture—and leadership credibility (when nothing that's done seems to make real or lasting improvements).

Why are these such nagging problems? A major obstacle to actually and sustainably reducing these injuries is that approaches enlisted are often rooted in fallacious assumptions about what really causes them. This can then cascade into same-old "solutions" that are easy-to-say-impractical-to-do that are not based on addressing real root causes (e.g., "Always pay attention!", "Slow down even when under time/production pressures," "Just be safe," "Think before you act," etc.).

That's where leading indicators come in, but only if leaders understand: a) what they really are/what they can do and b) how to best use them. Leading indicators are essentially walk-the-dog-back views of the forces that contribute to such tenacious injuries. Leaders' viewset entails going beyond just seeing the last thing that happened. For example, if a worker experiences lower back strain while palletizing, rather than climb on a bandwagon of blaming him/her for improper lifting or failure to follow procedures or not watching what he was doing, leading indicators could be developed that chart employee responses to training, observed changes of position, a number of useful suggestions for better pallet layout, supervisor time spent discussing/reminding safest approaches, and many more. Ultimately, applying leading indicators to a high level means first unearthing the alternate universe of "what could have been done better" and then measuring these desired actions. Remember that what leaders direct their attention to is most likely to actually get done. Management guru and author Tom Peters once said, "Everything I’ve learned in twenty-five years of working with companies can be summed down into five words: 'Attention is all there is.'" In other words, what you put your attention to directs what happens—both in leadership and in Safety. Using leading indicators well is a powerful method for actually directing attention toward making breakthroughs in ongoing injury problems.

Here are seven proven ways to lead with leading indicators, toward (finally!) making significant reductions in a chain of ongoing injuries.

1. Conceive of leading indicators as road signs marking progress toward the desired destination. Such signs indicate and reassure a driver that s/he is navigating closer to the destination (in this case, toward safer trailing indicators). Remember that leading indicators aren't an end in themselves, but tools/means toward greater Safety performance and culture.

2. Determine those factors—human, task, organizational/structural, communication, and environmental—that contribute to the tenacious injuries in your company. These will naturally lead to forming leading indicators (e.g., noting decreases in unsafe actions, ineffective planning, suboptimal tool purchasing, as well as a range of organizational and individual Safety improvement in these).

Consider incorporating my colleague Ron Bowles' advice: "I stress separating causal factors into two groups: those that are in workers' control and those that 'are owned' by the organization. Gaps in organizational controls lead to workers being exposed to the same risks multiple times and cumulatively, whereas gaps in individual behaviors and choices make a worker's potentially risky actions stand out from those of his/her peers."

3. Develop your objectives. What actions do you want to see displayed, words spoken (or reduced), reports made, etc. that would lead to greater awareness, decision-making, and better use of skills?

4. Understand that anything can be a metric and that there are many ways to gather such data—through observation, personal interview, written reports, verbal perceptions of co-workers, machine measurements, and much more. Don't restrict yourself in advance to others' criteria. Move away from assuming that only "pure" or so-called "scientific" measurements are accurate. (In fact, Nobel prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg showed that even seemingly "pure" observations are anything but that—and actually affect the behavior of sub-atomic particles. Think how the act of being observed might affect you, as well as other people.)

Ron Bowles also suggests conducting "employee evaluations of equipment builds/purchases both initially and after 30 days of use" to make sure purchased tools aren't actually sharpening safety risks. (And we've seen this happen too many times.)

5. Design a simple-to-implement feedback system. Develop time- and labor-efficient ways of noting at their earliest possible levels. Think of looking for molehills rising, rather than mountains already formed.

6. Determine the blockages to setting up, monitoring, and using leading indicators toward reducing tenacious injuries in your company. Then, applying the proven principle of Kurt Lewin's Force Field Analysis, decide how to reduce these as obstacles.

7. Analyze your results by looking for momentum. What do your leading indicators show regarding where your company is moving. To what degree toward the desired direction? How fast/slowly is this happening?

I know that subtle changes in direction and placement of forces can make the world of difference between a martial artist easily redirecting a strong attack vs. quickly succumbing to even a weak strike. The same is true in dealing with those forces that could lead to soft-tissue injuries, slips/trips/falls, hand injuries, driving accidents, and more. By leading with leading indicators, organizations can realize serious and sustaining advances in Safety performance and culture. I've seen this happen with many companies, many times.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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