Company change programs often fail due to a lack of interest. Management will announce plans for a big change initiative. Then they spend six months planning and designing the program. By the time of the launch, people have written the program off.
It’s essential to take action quickly—it’s both symbolic and dramatic. You need a “ready, fire, aim” experimental model of change rather than a “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim” model. In the “ready, fire, aim” approach, the results of your first shot give you information that allows you to adjust your aim so that your next bullets hit their target more accurately.
Too often, we see organizations fail to invest in their next leaders because of a desire to have all of the answers and implement the “perfect solution.” Our advice is: just get started. You are investing in your future leaders and learning and adjusting as needed. This process also encourages a culture of continuous change and learning.
Like the famous Nike slogan: Just do it!
A Safety Example
At the start of the Industrial Revolution, many tasks became automated and evolved from basic tools to mechanical devices and machines. Think ladder to elevator. With the introduction of machines and new technologies, there was a dramatic rise in workplace injuries and deaths.
In fact, by 1910, there were 1,200 deaths or serious injuries for every 10,000 workers in the steel industry. By the 1930s, when building a bridge, the standard metric for planning purposes was one death for every $1 million spent. It was a “cost of doing business.”
Parallel—I firmly believe many businesses in the 21st century accept high employee turnover as a cost of doing business. Certainly, someone leaving a company for another is not as dramatic as a death on the job (not even close!). But it is also not acceptable. There will always be turnover, just like there will always be accidents, but things can be done to minimize both.
In 1933, the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began. Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss would not accept the status quo. People dying would not be accepted as a cost of doing business. Strauss insisted that all workers wear hard hats and use safety lines, and he constructed a safety net to catch falling workers.
Strauss was not the first to use some of these techniques. However, he was the first to link consequences to ignoring the safety initiatives. Strauss would fire anyone who was caught ignoring the safety rules. Unfortunately, Strauss and his top executives could not be everywhere at all times. While the safety net saved several men, and there were fewer deaths and injuries during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge than in other projects of that scope, people still died.
Parallel—implementing strong systems is simply not enough. The threat of consequences will only go so far, and leadership cannot be everywhere at once. While driving accountability is critical, and consequences are important, what was missing at the Golden Gate Bridge project was culture. There was not a culture of safety.
Fast forward to 1971. The formation of OSHA created an oversight body to enforce safety compliance. This certainly had a significant impact on safety best practices. Now not only was there legal incentive to develop strong safety programs, but there was also a high financial cost in not doing so.
Even so, in our experience and observations, legal and financial benefits do not drive the culture. In fact, on many job sites in the late 1980s, safety was a “suggestion.” Sure, there would definitely be consequences if the “safety police” caught you. But safety was not necessarily built into the culture. Your peers would not necessarily hold you accountable.
Parallel—Even with rules, processes, suggestions, consequences, and financial incentives, your initiatives will not become ingrained in the business.
In our experience, the best construction and manufacturing companies have developed safety cultures because the bosses did not take a “ready, aim, aim, aim, aim” approach. They pulled the trigger. They committed to action. They personally led the change. In fact, they put their name and reputation on the line to drive a safety culture.
Only 20 short years ago, safety was merely a strong suggestion. Today, every world-class construction and manufacturing firm has a real safety culture.
Today’s CEO must assume ownership of reproducing leaders. Fully delegating this initiative is not an option. Construction firms have safety directors, but without the complete commitment from the top, these folks are simply “the safety police.”
Adapted from our best-selling book, The Leadership Decade: A Playbook for an Extraordinary Era. If you’d like to purchase a copy, please visit s21.us/tldbook for a hardback book or s21.us/tldebook for an ebook. For even more information, check out theleadershipdecade.com.