For years you have heard about leading and lagging indicators for safety and health. In 2016, I published an article for the National Safety Council’s Safety + Health magazine on leading and lagging indicators, as seen here: What are safety leading indicators?1 The basic definition of these indicators was posed as this:
“Safety leading indicators are proactive measures that measure prevention efforts and can be observed and recorded prior to an injury. As opposed, safety lagging indicators are reactive measures that track only negative outcomes, such as an injury once it has already occurred.”
While partially true, this article, and many subsequent ones presented, have sought only to define an abstract problem with a simplistic explanation. While potentially useful, the practical application lies only as a small part of a larger and more complex process. Leading and lagging indicators are simply components of a broader formula that yields performance indicators. Performance Indicators, or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are the critical indicators of progress toward an intended result.2 Performance indicators provide several strategic benefits:
- A focus for operational improvement
- Evidence-based rationale for decision making
KPIs, however, are only useful when clear expectations are established such that everyone understands the objective and measurements are used to track progress against those targeted expectations. Managing with KPIs often means working to improve leading indicators that are inputs expected to lead to future success that will later drive better lagging outcomes.
According to the Balanced Scorecard Institute (BSI)3, good performance indicators offer the following:
- Provide objective evidence of progress towards achieving a desired result
- Measure what is intended to be measured to help inform better decision making
- Offer a comparison that gauges the degree of performance change over time
- Can track efficiency, effectiveness, quality, timeliness, governance, compliance, behaviors, economics, project performance, personnel performance, or resource utilization
- Are balanced between leading and lagging indicators
Let’s take these recommendations and put it to the test:
My objective is to reduce weight from X to Y within a given time. I take my current weight (X) and determine my ideal weight, or at least my desired weight (Y). I determine that my food intake determines my weight, so I begin to measure my caloric intake through an app on my phone. I measure my weight going frequently over time and compare to X and Y.
Although many of the criteria for ‘good’ performance indicators were met in this example, the approach is entirely too simplistic. Reliance on a single metric or activity is problematic and can yield poor or inaccurate results. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are numerous factors that can affect your weight and may make it hard for you to lose weight or avoid regaining weight that you have lost.4 As with this example, developing KPIs without considering the limitations of the overall system is ill advised.
Similar to the weight loss analogy, if safety and health indicators seems too simplistic, they probably are. Simply tracking metrics such as the number of training hours completed, or the number of safety inspections conducted yields little contextual benefit beyond a number or a graph. The metrics and measurements must work together to contribute to a bigger story that demonstrates how something is doing, whether it is for the overall organization, a department within the organization, a process or even a specific workflow. The key relationship with measurements for performance indicators is that they should be created to address a specific function or need.
The relative relation of measurements and metrics to a bigger story ultimately determine their value. What is being done to assure future success (inputs, process, and outputs) and what is the desired outcome? These can be thought of as leading/lagging in some aspect, but an outcome in isolation could be a ‘leading indicator’ in some definitions yet be a ‘lagging indicator’ in a specific process. Ideally, measurements and metrics are selected based on establishment of supported cause-effect relationship.
Performance indicators are more than simply a collection of numbers, metrics and fancy dashboards. Performance indicators are designed to tell a story that is both informative and actionable. What we label the indicators and how we display them is of relatively no value unless they are ultimately tied to action and improvement efforts. If management of risk is the desired outcome, then increasing the quantity and quality of valued inputs coupled with a robust feedback loop within a continuous improvement methodology is the pinnacle to aspire to.
Subscribe to the next blog post, Measuring Safety Performance, to view examples of setting up detailed safety and health performance indicators across an organization.
1 Usrey, C. (2019, November 15). The Campbell Institute: What are safety leading indicators? Retrieved from https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/13821-the-campbell-institute-what-are-safety-leading-indicators
2 What is a Key Performance Indicator (KPI)? (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://kpi.org/KPI-Basics
3 Wilsey, D., Sterling, T., Levy, J., McGillicuddy, J., & Boo, M. (2020, April 9). How Do You Measure Success? Retrieved April 30, 2020, from https://balancedscorecard.org/
4 Factors Affecting Weight & Health. (2018, February 1). Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/adult-overweight-obesity/factors-affecting-weight-health
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Cary comes to the SafetyStratus team as the Vice President of Operations with almost 30 years of experience in several different industries. He began his career in the United States Navy’s nuclear power program. From there he transitioned into the public sector as an Environmental, Health & Safety Manager in the utility industry. After almost thirteen years, he transitioned into the construction sector as a Safety Director at a large, international construction company. Most recently he held the position of Manager of Professional Services at a safety software company, overseeing the customer success, implementation, and process consulting aspects of the services team.
At SafetyStratus, he is focused on helping achieve the company’s vision of “Saving lives and the environment by successfully integrating knowledgeable people, sustainable processes, and unparalleled technology”.