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How Valuable Is Your Behavior-Based Safety Process? What One Company Found Out

October 12, 2016

hard-hats.jpgQuestion - if you had to rank the importance of Behavior-Based Safety (BBS) relative to other parts of your safety management system, where would you rank it?

More importantly – where would your company’s employees rank BBS in terms of added value? This is exactly what a global manufacturing company with over 11,000 employees and over $10 billion in annual revenue is doing, and the answers that it got from its leaders were very interesting.

This organization just finished polling over 160 supervisors, managers and EHS professionals across all of their North American operations (over 10 sites) as part of a comprehensive safety leadership training effort. They have had BBS in place across these facilities for nearly 20 years, and have invested extensive money, time and resources into its BBS systems. Clearly, somebody has seen value in it.

Prior to the training, a short survey was administered to all participants. One of the questions on the survey specifically asked all participants to rank, in order, 10 of the company’s top HSE tools and processes in terms of EHS value. One of the 10 options, of course, was “BBS.” Here are the other response options that participants were asked to rank (in no particular order):

  • Life Saving Rules

  • Safety Audits

  • HSE Communication

  • Safety Meetings

  • Gemba Walks

  • Leadership Commitment

  • Risk assessment

  • Focus on Serious Injuries and Fatalities (SIFs)

  • Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Below are the results of the survey, where 1 = Lowest Value to EHS and 10 = Highest Value to EHS. Across 9 different classes of 15 to 18 participants, which spanned the 140+ leaders, BBS had the second lowest value ranking overall. It was never ranked higher than a 3 out of 10, and in over half of the sessions, it was ranked either dead last, or second to last in terms of EHS value.


So, guess what was consistently ranked as #1? Yup, you guessed it - Leadership Commitment. We often hear the common expression, “It starts at the top,” and the results of this survey were no exception. Given that the people being polled were all leaders at some level, it indicated that they realized that their visible commitment was the most important thing they could do for safety.

So, maybe you’re not very surprised by this. After all, we know that leadership commitment is important for any safety culture to thrive. But, why would BBS be consistently ranked so low? While the survey did not specifically ask this particular question, conversations with several participants (including key BBS stakeholders within the company) revealed some likely reasons for these concerning results. Here are some of the most telling comments we heard. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • “BBS can work – IF you do it right”

  • “If you don’t have support from upper management, it’ll never work”

  • “The other day someone did an observation on someone making coffee”

  • “People are just pencil-whipping the forms. People pretty much just do their 2 observations a month, on the day before they’re due”

  • “I’ve never actually seen an observation taking place out on the floor, and I’ve been here for almost 5 years”

  • “We’ve been doing it for so long, I think it’s just run its course”

There are many factors that will influence the success of BBS in any organization, and these must be taken into consideration before we make a judgment on whether BBS does or doesn’t work. These include organizational culture, the current level of safety maturity, communication, and the methodology used to implement it.

The results of this company’s survey would tell us, however, that leadership commitment might be the most important of these factors. The way they talk about it, the way they perceive it, and how they run the process will have a huge impact on its success, and this is particularly true for leaders. There simply is no one “silver bullet,” but if you have 1) senior leaders who advocate for BBS effectively and decide to do it for the right reasons, coupled with 2) supervisors and managers who communicate and implement BBS correctly and genuinely, can be the difference between sustained success and certain failure.

So I’ve shared with you the perceptions of BBS from one organization. But their unique situation and BBS process might be entirely different from yours. Now let’s shift the focus over to you. If your organization does have a current BBS process in place, and people have different opinions about its value, I recommend that you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. How much value does BBS currently add relative to our other safety systems and processes?

  2. Who feels that it is effective? What are they basing that on? Who feels it is ineffective? What are they basing that on?

  3. How would you rate the current level of active engagement and participation in BBS across the company? Does it differ by levels of the company (e.g., upper management versus hourly)

  4. Do you believe your supervisors and managers possess the right skills and behaviors to successfully lead your BBS process?

  5. What does your organization currently do to equip your leaders to effectively lead the BBS process?

  6. Are you hiring or promoting leaders who have the necessary interpersonal skills and traits to do this? What tools and processes does your company use to do this?

Asking these tough questions about BBS at your organization can help assess its value, how it is perceived, and whether changes need to take place. Even the best of processes and systems need to be assessed, updated or replaced in order to achieve continuous improvement.

We want to hear from you! Join the conversation on LinkedIn and tell us about your current BBS process and why you think it works, or why it doesn’t. In your opinion, what are the keys to sustainable and effective BBS?

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Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. Esteban Tristan, Ph.D. is the Director of Safety Solutions at PSI. He manages the development and implementation of all safety solutions and services, which address some of the critical challenges faced by organizations today in workplace safety.