Over the past four years, we have worked successfully to change the safety culture at a mid-sized US utility company from “blaming workers for their errors” to “learning through our mishaps.”  We moved the needle on making the change with managers and workers. We thawed the “frozen middle” layer of management. And we did all that without using the digital tools that have become essential to internal communications today.

We saw the needle move in the results of our first two biennial surveys of the safety culture.  Between survey one and survey two, we improved performance on all seven measures we used to track the culture change.  The perception by employees and managers that the company was moving from fault finding to fact finding when it investigated safety incidents was up by nearly 13 percentage points.  The perception that it was now okay to bring bad news to the boss without getting punished was up by 7 percentage points.  The belief that the company was now communicating safety lessons learned from incidents across the organization was up by 4.5 percentage points.

We saw the thaw in the notorious “frozen middle” layer of management – the layer change managers often find will resist any new direction – in the results of a survey of supervisors and managers in the second year of our initiative.  Among managers and supervisors, 93 percent saw the value of a learning and improving safety culture; 86 percent said making the culture change was an important part of their jobs; and 82 percent said they used the behaviors of a learning and improving culture in leading their teams.

We got these results even though we could not use digital tools, particularly mobile apps, that are often cited as the answer to the problem of reaching a non-desk workforce, the majority of the employee population in utility companies.

As many other companies with remote or distributed field workforces have experienced, this company had a field workforce that rejected digital communications.  Every employee had an email address, but field workers rarely used it. Many never checked email at all.  Field workers also resisted using personal cell phones for company business.  Many field employees refused to use company apps on their phones.  Others saw company apps as invasive.

Because we did not have the option of using an internal communication app for this project, we focused implementation of our communication strategy on an old school tool, face-to-face communications.  We used two primary face-to-face tools, one created for the culture change initiative and the other a standing safety communication tool that we adapted for the culture change.

We called the tool that we created for the change initiative a “meeting-in-a-box” (MIB).  The MIB consisted of a monthly discussion guide focused on a particular topic that would advance the culture change, usually a behavior important to a learning and improving safety culture.  The MIB contained talking points for a facilitated discussion between a leader and a team along with a case study to illustrate the topic.

Employee teams learned the lessons each month in a discussion conducted by their supervisors at a standing team safety meeting.  Supervisors – and their managers — learned how to use the discussion guide in virtual monthly meetings conducted by the leader of their business area.  The business leaders were coached in the guides and how to teach them by their safety directors.

The MIBs gave us a consistent format and message each month.   They also served to make the senior leaders’ commitment to the culture change demonstrable as “teachers-in-chief.”  And the MIBs helped us solve the problem of the frozen middle.  Supervisors and managers were our chief conveyors of the new culture.  They had to learn and understand the workings of the culture change, and thereby learned its value, because they had to teach the culture to their teams.

The face-to-face safety tool that we adapted to the culture change was what the company had named the Incident Review Call, conducted virtually.  It was a postmortem for managers on the most serious safety incidents each month.  Before the culture change initiative, the calls were conducted as de facto investigations of employee behavior during the incident and concluded with finding who was at fault.  Those found at fault were reprimanded or retrained or both.

Our adaptation included changing the name of the calls to Learning Review Calls so we could place the emphasis where we needed it; we also made them about “events,” not “incidents.”  Those changes allowed us to maintain a consistent focus on using new language, new terminology, essential to the culture change we wanted and embed the thinking behind the new language in workforce behavior.

Then, we changed the process for these calls. All managers from all levels of the division featured in the calls were invited – from CEO to supervisor. The presenter – the leader of the team involved in the event – would share the story of the work, how the decisions made by the team made sense to them at the time, and what the team learned as they looked back at the event with knowledge of the outcome.  The presenter finally described the changes that could be implemented to build additional safety defenses in the company’s systems. For supervisors and managers, these calls became the heart of making the change to the new ways of working in the new culture because the new process helped us embed the new thinking and language of the new safety culture into new behavior.

We think that if we had not been able to use and adapt old fashioned in-person communications for this initiative, the transition to a new safety culture change might have been less successful.  This workforce was responsive to learning directly from their supervisors, not using a digital tool to get a company directive. Creating a new communication tool for them based on those old school tactics also drew the frozen middle into the culture change, allowing a new safety culture to become embedded across the business. What we learned through our work with this company may provide valuable lessons for other change managers facing similar issues among similar workforces.

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