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Setting the Tone from the Top: Safety and Operational Excellence

By Denise Harrison 

Strategic Planning Expert
Denise Harrison

“How do you balance worker safety and overall production goals?”, asked an audience member at the CEG SMART Manufacturing Conference. Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing CEO, answered without hesitation, “We work safely before we think about production.”

This answer reminded me of former Alcoa CEO, Paul O’Neill, just after he had taken the helm of the floundering aluminum manufacturer.  At his first shareholder meeting he stated, “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America.  I intend to go for zero injuries.”  The stock dropped – this statement was not exactly what investors wanted the new CEO to be focused on.  While the stock plunged in the short-term, long-term O’Neill increased profits by 500% during his 12-year tenure.

Why safety?

  • Safety goals are one area on which both management and union/line employees can agree. A common goal that enhances teamwork among disparate groups – basically a people first philosophy.
  • The focus on zero injuries changes the culture from one that tolerates mistakes to one that focuses on improving processes and operational excellence.
  • The safety focus enhances accountability throughout the organization.

Why is this a CEO issue?

Recently I spoke with a group of CEOs about safety:  they agreed companies either have safety as part of their culture, or safety is a regulatory or customer requirement that they must comply with.  The group agreed that those with safety ingrained in their culture saw better teamwork and a sharper focus on continuous improvement.

What can you do to make safety part of your culture?

  • The message must come from the top; with a clear focus on what is best for the employee:
    • We want you safe.
    • We want your family safe.
    • We want your co-workers safe.
  • Critically, employees must be given the tools to be safe:
    • Effective training
    • Proper equipment (An example: investing in robots for lifting heavy loads to aid the aging workforce.)

To ensure your training is effective, remember that 70% of training is forgotten in 24 hours (source: SafetyNow, Rick Tobin) – so repetition is important.  Training programs that offer periodic follow-up activities after the initial training event, increase retention significantly.  Additionally, many programs are now incorporating game-like elements, so that employees remain engaged during their safety training. In any case, it is important to review your safety training to make sure you are achieving the desired results.

Bottom Line

A strong message about the importance of safety sends the signal that employees are important to the company.  This message should not be delegated.  However, a message from the top is not enough: employees must have the education, equipment and technology to function safely.  The good news is that when safety becomes part of the culture, employees feel valued and become more focused on overall operational excellence.

Are you interested in enhancing your strategic planning process?  If so, please contact me at: harrison@thestratplan.com or 910-763-5194.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Are you frustrated with your strategic planning process?  Attend the Simplified Strategic Planning Seminar for in-depth instruction on this subject.  Simplified Strategic Planning is a lean, thorough, effective process that has been honed and improved for over 35 years.

Denise Harrison is a senior consultant for the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at  harrison@thestratplan.com.

© Copyright 2017 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.