Using habits to create a culture of safety

If you are a fleet safety manager, then Alcoa has a great lesson for you.

In order to effectively run a safe and profitable fleet, it is critical to create a culture of safety within your company. While this advice sounds simple, the implementation can be daunting and may sometimes seem nearly impossible. Bad habits are difficult to change, particularly when they are inherited from a company culture started long ago. The challenge is to replace bad habits with good ones to embed a culture of safety within your organization.

Before becoming George W. Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O’Neill was the CEO of Alcoa, the world’s largest aluminum company, from 1987 to 1999. When O’Neill joined Alcoa he knew very little about aluminum. He came from a paper company and before that, he was a high-ranking federal bureaucrat. He did know a lot about turning organizations around, though. After all, that’s what he was hired to do. His first address to Alcoa’s stockholders was a big surprise.

In 1987, times were tough for Alcoa. While most CEO’s would spend their christening speech talking about increasing profit margins and lowering costs, O’Neill’s promise was something unexpected: focus on Alcoa’s safety culture. That’s right, the most important thing that O’Neill could do for his company was to change their safety culture. His goal was to create a “zero accidents” culture, not simply because it could save lives (aluminum smelting is a dangerous business), but also because he believed that it would transform communications and relationships within the company.

From his years working at the Veterans Administration and the Office of Management and Budget, O’Neill understood that the best way to create a “zero accidents” culture was to encourage and foster new habits for his organization – specifically, change who reacted and how they reacted whenever there was a safety “event” in the company. It was more than changing procedures, it was changing habits; an across the board approach to challenge how Alcoa team members, from executives to workers instinctively reacted to safety incidents.

In his book The Power of Habit: Why We do What We do in Life and Business, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg interviews O’Neill in an attempt to learn how changing the safety habits of Alcoa resulted in their profits reaching an all time high within the first year of his tenure.

In his book, Duhigg describes a 3-step habit loop based on studies at MIT in the 1990’s:

  • CUE: This is what starts the habit. In our industry this could be something like a pre-trip safety check, a brake warning light coming on, or even a last minute change to the makeup of a load.
  • ROUTINE: The routine describes the actions that we want to take place after the CUE. To use one of the above examples, every time a driver leaves the yard, the driver runs through a standard safety checklist. Right now, you’re thinking, “I know this. What’s your point?” The point is to customize and standardize that checklist (ROUTINE), knowing that every fleet has different safety requirements. Whatever your biggest safety concerns, make sure you catch them in that safety check. If your checklist doesn’t include your most common safety challenges, then it’s not a safety checklist.
  • REWARD: By rewarding the routine, the loop becomes the habit. What should you be rewarding? Reward the discovery of a safety issue for drivers. Think of it as making them WANT to find a safety issue – not to delay their trip, but to earn recognition for the discovery. Correcting that safety issue with maintenance, operations or dispatch then becomes another opportunity for a habit loop: CUE (the driver’s discovery); ROUTINE (correcting the issue); REWARD (whatever will make them want to correct the issue as quickly and effectively as possible).

O’Neill used this 3-step loop model to establish a culture of safety at Alcoa. With his program, the cue was simply any employee injury. The routine was that anytime an injury occurred, that unit’s president would be required to notify O’Neill personally within 24 hours. The reward was that the only people who would be considered for promotions would be those that implemented the plan.

In order for the routine to work, communications had to be reworked and streamlined and accountability had to be spread from the hourly worker all the way up to the unit president and then to O’Neill himself.

From years of studying and structuring habits in governmental positions before taking his seat at Alcoa, O’Neill learned that organizations can’t be expected to change habits overnight. He realized that you had to start with what Duhigg refers to as a “Keystone Habit.” This is a habit that is easy to change, while still having high impact. Once a Keystone Habit has been established and implemented, a chain reaction occurs, affecting the entire culture.

What areas within your safety program need improvement? A great way to change your organization’s safety culture is to sit down with your operations and safety managers and one or more of your veteran drivers to make a list of the issues that need the most attention. Once the list has been made, identify one or two of them as having good potential for creating a Keystone Habit.

When looking for a keystone habit, consider: 1) the ease of changing the habit; and 2) that habit’s impact on safety performance.

Consider the cue where you want the process to begin, then create the routine that will solve the problem, and finally establish a reward that will motivate those within your organization to embrace the habit. Once this Keystone Habit is in place, you will notice it snowballing out to other issues on the list as new habits are developed.

When Alcoa’s new safety culture started to take shape, here is what they saw:

  • Agreement in long-debated union rules
  • Less resistance from managers regarding policies
  • Improved habit development for employees in their personal lives

It’s not impossible to change the safety culture within your company. With the right momentum and habit structure, it can be accomplished fairly quickly. Remember: a thousand mile journey starts with one small step. Try not to be overwhelmed by the thousand mile distance you have to travel to achieve a new safety culture. Focus on the three step habit loops that will help you get there.

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