You’ve probably heard of W. Edwards Deming. Most people working in manufacturing, quality, or Environment, Health and Safety (EHS) management are familiar with him. He was a well-known management consultant and author noted for his advanced work in quality management and productivity.
In his 1986 book “Out of the Crisis,” Deming laid out the management principals needed to transform industry. One of these principals reminds me why common approaches to EHS and safety management are often inadequate. Let’s look at how this principle applies to EHS and Safety management today, and how a practical framework can help guide improvement efforts, even in an environment that tends to use on “slogans and exhortation” to get results.
“Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce asking for zero defects and new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce.”
Unrealistic Goals and Performance Plateaus
When it comes to safety and environmental management, many companies set lofty goals such as “Zero Harm” and “Zero Incidents.” Here’s a real-world example:
“We are committed to achieving Zero Harm. This means zero injuries and zero environmental damage...We, therefore, expect each and every person to work safely and with respect for the environment…”
While this is an admirable goal, there are at least two problems with it:
1. Eliminating all hazards and reducing all risks to the point at which there is zero probability of an accident or adverse impact is not economically feasible. Risks and costs need to be balanced.
2. This approach ultimately puts the onus on the employee to “work safely,” while his or her ability to do so depends in large part on the overall management system.
This sort of approach typically sets up what Deming calls the “Path of Frustration” that organizations encounter in continuous improvement efforts. The program starts off with great enthusiasm, and the desired results improve month to month, with expectations that this pattern will continue. Instead, continuous improvement comes to a halt, or at best tapers off. This phenomenon occurs because the problems that are easy to see and correct are addressed first (the proverbial “low hanging fruit”), but then it becomes much harder to find and implement improvement opportunities.
The Challenges of EHS Performance Improvement
As an EHS or operations business leader, you may have experienced this when it comes to safety and environmental performance. Despite being OSHAS 18001 and ISO 14001 certified, momentum towards zero incidents and harm stalls out. Even with all the audits, risk assessments, incident investigations, training, and expressions of management support, progress is not maintained.
While such management systems are effective in defining an organization’s EHS strategy and how it will be implemented, that’s only part of the story. Often there’s a gap between the stated policies, processes, and procedures, and their execution in day-to-day operations. This failure to consistently operationalize EHS management is what hinders performance improvement and causes adverse events.
What are the barriers? Our research shows that “poor cross-functional collaboration” is one of the top challenges to EHS performance improvement cited by 46% of respondents, neck and neck with “disparate systems and data sources” at 49%. Clearly, the overarching challenge holding back EHS performance improvement is siloed, whether of organization or information.
Start Where You Are: Assess Your EHS Capability Maturity
A clear definition of the problem to be solved and the reason for doing so is critical for continuous improvement. The key is using a formal gap analysis methodology that com¬pares the organization’s current state with industry best practices. This enables a systematic definition of the problem. Capability maturity models that consider People, Process, and Technology capabilities, such as the LNS Research EHS Excellence Maturity Model (below), are useful tools for this.
This framework describes the stages organizations typically go through in their evolution towards being Innovation Leaders that influence the market by driving standards and expectations. Less mature organizations lack standardized processes, are reactive, and lack continuous improvement. More mature organizations have well-defined management systems in place, and use them to meet compliance obligations and manage operational risk. At these lev¬els, there is a concentrated focus on continuous improvement with broad employee engagement.
At the top level, the company has fully operationalized EHS in the sense that it is part of the core business strategy and incorporated into daily operations at all organizational levels. The staff consistent¬ly executes the management system, and senior management has an active role in reviewing performance and driving improvement. The ability to adapt to changing conditions and events, both internal and external, contributes to the resilience of the organization.
A capability maturity model enables as-is assessment, gap analysis relative to industry best practices, and identification of priorities for improvement. Using such a structured approach is valuable in going beyond the “slogans and exhortations.” It provides a way to drive real continuous performance improvement based on the reality of current capabilities and resources.