Key Performance Indicators in Safety – why is the tail wagging the dog?

23rd March 2017

It can sometimes feel like we are obsessed with reactive KPIs such as Lost Time or Zero Harm or Injury.  The pure pursuit of the downward trending “ski jump” graph or getting away from the stagnating ‘plateau’ can become all-consuming.

In our “beyond the plateau” thinking, it is easy to lose sight of why we set the KPI in the first place.  Let’s remind ourselves: to measure the performance of the business against a plan of action and our established risk management controls.

Performance is the key word in this sentence and relates to the quality with which we have deployed a particular risk control.  In reality, much of our KPI thinking will almost certainly be an “on/off” quantitative measure which has more limited value in the basic question “how well are we doing day-to-day in comprehensively implementing risk controls?”

A reminder on risk controls:  the things that we do so that people go home healthy and safe each and every shift. And, as a happy side effect, they make the operation of the business far more efficient and profitable via an engaged workforce…

In our quantitative approach to risk management, we tend to consider our past results as a guarantee of future success.  In doing so, we inadvertently store up the missed opportunities which never allow us to escape the plateau, or worse, push us back up the skip jump.  This thinking does not take into account the significant latent risks which we have designed into our organisations over the years, nor does it accommodate the human condition which will always include making errors.

To escape this trap, I believe that two areas of focus are essential:

First, absolutely clarity is required that organisational factors, rooted in strong leadership behaviour, is the core of any sustainable improvement in performance. Once you have clearly identified your key organisational factors then task and people factors can fall into place and day-to-day risk control improves significantly.

Second, results should not be confused with performance.  Good results are the natural conclusion of good performance, but if you adopt the “looking at the graph longingly” approach, you will fail to practically and emotionally connect what you need to do, regarding performance, to achieve the results which you desire.

Currently there appears to be somewhat of an obsession about the potentially toxic nature of “Zero Harm” as a KPI or a business vision.

From a personal perspective I prefer a business vision and KPIs which are proactive in nature and don’t seek to measure something which is not there, i.e. a bit less failure than last month.  I think the proactive approach is easier to grasp, scale and work with.

However, I think much of this “Zero” Campaign or the “Not Zero” campaign is missing the point about why performance improvement is not taking place.

In short, you pick your KPIs to measure the effectiveness of your leadership behaviours in successfully deploying your vision and strategy. The current debate suggests that the KPI picks the vision, strategy and leadership behaviours which satisfy its needs. This is clearly back to front.  Blaming the KPI (Zero Harm) alone is futile and suggests it’s the tail’s job to wag the dog!  

The more we understand the significance of organisational factors as the most essential component of performance improvement, the quicker we abandon the excessive focus on the ski jump or plateau thinking. By looking closely at the quality of day-to-day risk control, we gain greater and greater confidence that we will send people home healthy and safe every day.

Finally. before you feel compelled to rethink your whole approach to H&S, ask yourself the following simple questions:

  1. Are you regularly observing the required leadership behaviours?
  2. Are line managers consistently deploying risk management controls on a daily basis?
  3. Are employees engaged and actively managing their own H&S and that of those around them?
  4. Are your H&S team members challenging and engaging for success?

If the answer to the majority of these is no, I would suggest the only rethink that is required in the short term is how to significantly change point 1.

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