It’s an age-old management rule: what gets measured gets done. But there’s a corollary to that rule: what the bosses wants, the bosses get — whether or not that’s the right thing is up to them. The metrics we use tell people what we want.  Our performance measures broadcast our desires to the organization: do this and you’ll be okay… you may even get ahead.  And people want to get ahead — so they give us what we want… sometimes to a fault. How often has your organization established a new scorecard, intending to incentivize certain behaviors, only to see people respond in ways you didn’t expect?  How often have you seen people do things to make the scorecard look good, without achieving the intended result? We see this often in the area of worker safety. We set out to measure safety, but people respond, not by being more safe, but by doing things to make our charts look good. Unless we are very careful, folks will give us exactly what we ask for — better metrics — rather than the desired behavior. Three examples Here are three common safety metrics that inadvertently send the wrong message and drive undesired behaviors:
  • We want fewer injuries, so we measure injuries — how many, how severe, days since our last injury, etc. But we discover employees hiding injuries — no-one wants to be the one that breaks the current “days without an accident” streak. Incidents go unreported and we rarely hear about near-misses. Our metrics send the message, “we don’t want reported injuries”… and people give us what we want.
  • We want teams to correct hazardous conditions and follow safe work practices, so we inspect work areas and observe workers. But teams often clean up the morning before the inspection; the moment we show up to do observations, work stops and people disappear — no-one will risk working while the management team is watching. Our metrics send the message, “we don’t want to see anything wrong when we come to your area”… and people respond brilliantly.
  • We want people to participate in safety activities like pre-task planning and training — so we have them fill out forms and sign rosters which the safety department tracks and file. But people often “pencil-whip” the forms, or sign the training roster and then nod off. Our metrics send the message, “what matters to us is the paperwork is in order”… and people step up to that challenge.
So what to do? Based on our experience, there are two ways for leaders to put the focus on results rather than scorecards. First: design better metrics:
  • We want fewer injuries, but we really want accurate information about where we can improve — so let’s measure reporting of incidents. Celebrate / promote / incentivize reporting of near-misses, no-treatment hurts, and self-treated first aids; swap the script and put pressure on the crews that report the fewest incidents; praise the teams that tell it like it is.
  • We want teams to correct hazardous conditions and follow procedure, but we really want people to be attentive to their work areas and speak up when processes are not followed — so let’s measure discovery and resolution of unsafe conditions, and interventions between co-workers. Have teams inspect their own areas, and observe one another. Encourage the areas that find and resolve issues; lean in to the teams that give themselves a clean bill of health.
  • We want people to participate in pre-task planning and safety training, but we really want people to contribute to the conversation and retain what they heard — so let’s measure the effectiveness of these activities, rather than completion of paper-work. Interview workers to determine if they are familiar with the day’s pre-task plan; a day or two after training, follow-up with a quiz to see how much knowledge they retained (don’t rely on in-the-classroom quizzes… trainers will ‘teach to the test’).
Second: go beyond metrics
  • Re-design meetings where you review safety performance, and instead of looking at charts, go around the table and ask each team member to talk about what they are doing to make the workplace safer — ask them what’s going well, what are they concerned about, what help do they need?
  • Re-design the inspections, audits and observations you do, and instead of looking at physical conditions or watching workers, interview them — ask them how are they most-likely to get hurt, what tasks are they complacent about, what ideas do they have for keeping the team safe?
  • Re-design your safety activities like pre-task hazard assessment or safety meetings, and instead of telling people what they need to know, tell them why safety matters to you— ask them what help they need in order to go home safely every day
Charts, rates, tables and reports are abstractions. They flatten and summarize what’s really going on so it fits into our management reviews. But lost in that process is conversation and relationship and influence. We really want people to feel personally engaged, responsible and committed to making a difference for safety. Turn the old adage on it’s head: what gets measured gets done, but if something is really important, go talk with people and make sure they’re on-board. Interested in learning more? Ready to engage your people and get the results you really want? We’re ready to help.

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