‘Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’

08 Feb 2017 |

This insight was from Einstein, but in reality probably goes back to our cave-dwelling ancestors, or we may still be back there with our opposable thumbs preparing our paleo-meals. I remember as a kid watching the cartoons of the Coyote trying to nail that irritating, gloating Roadrunner. I was always thinking, “Why doesn’t he just try that again but with that one thing fixed? Why doesn’t he ever LEARN?!?”

Leadership and culture. They are the two most important words in work health and safety. Done right, they can enable businesses to improve their performance in WHS and beyond in a way that a compliance mindset never can.

That was the message we delivered to Safe Work Australia last week as it sought feedback on its mid-term review of the Australian WHS Strategy 2012-2022. AusChamber CEO James Pearson, the newest member at SWA, and I had a long and quite promising meeting with CEO Michelle Baxter and her leadership team.

The meeting laid the foundation for refreshing the relationship. It also sought to discuss our principles-based ideas on what’s next for SWA, the chief agenda-setter and coordinator of state regulators.

The Government’s focus in the first five years of the Australian WHS Strategy is logical – to consolidate Australia’s newly harmonised WHS laws and build a complementary suite of regulatory instruments to support them and those subject to them (ie, all of us). These regulatory instruments include the regulations themselves, the Model Codes of Practice, guidance material and so on.

Reflecting that orientation, SWA’s efforts to improve safety outcomes for most businesses have largely focused on driving and policing compliance.

However, there is evidence that we waste much time and energy chasing compliance. That’s because we sometimes spend too much time on things that do little or nothing to improve, mitigate or manage our organisations’ risk profile. They might even set an organisation’s culture back by driving the focus onto the wrong things (the weeds), often in the wrong ways and at the wrong times, and by the wrong people. For example: I know of many engineering and construction businesses whose reward-and-recognition schemes include categories for compliance – like that’s a really special thing just for the high-achievers!

At the meeting with SWA we discussed how to best progress toward our shared vision of “healthy, safe and productive working lives” over the next five years. Not just through plucking the “low-hanging fruit” – the incremental improvements that compliance-thinking faithfully delivers. Much of the time.

Instead, we could try something proving more successful: to achieve that shared vision and more by enabling businesses to take action that can bring a cascade of positive, cross-business flow-ons.

There are thousands of examples of this approach. These include the iconic DuPont turnaround 25 years ago (from global pariah to sustainability leader under Paul Tebo’s “Goal Zero” safety motto), Qantas in recent months focussing on learning from the safety positives of care and mindfulness and extending that across the business, to medium enterprises and even family-owned businesses. These businesses have worked out that leadership and culture change just need a catalyst for people. It’s becoming clear: a positive safety culture is perhaps the best platform for that change.

So hear that? That’s enough from me about us and what we’re doing. I’d like to hear all about YOU. How are you, your leaders and your organisation, actually managing safety? Would you say you’re successful? As good as you can or should be? Is it woven into the fabric of what you live and breathe on a daily basis, or is it just something that’s shunted to the specialist, like a tick in someone’s ACME box. Safety? Tick.

And so…hold on. What’s that? Cue the tumble-weeds rolling across the Nevada Highway. MEEP! MEEP! This isn’t just me talking…It’s the sound of us listening. So speak UP. We’d love to hear from you.

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