Most safety management systems (SMS) are based on the Deming/Shewhart Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle. We discussed PDCA in a previous article, but today’s article will take a closer look at the check step. Why single out the check step? Well, there are at least three reasons:
- It is so often missing in any meaningful way from attempts to establish an organizational safety management system (SMS).
- You cannot have a functional safety management system (SMS) without a robust check step.
- As “independent” and knowledgeable professionals, safety staffs are uniquely situated to play a key role in both check step development and implementation.
The Vital Check Step
The purpose of any PDCA process is to continuously improve. But you cannot improve unless you understand what needs improvement. Unfortunately, some organizations seem almost reluctant to self-assess safety in a meaningful manner. As a result, even companies that establish excellent safety goals and objectives, complete with comprehensive (and often expensive) implementation schemes, fail in their efforts to improve. They fail because they lack a process to measure and analyze their progress. Safety assessment is stuck in isolation with the safety staff if it is done at all. Managers may know their lagging indicator accident rates but have little understanding of how well (or poorly) they are doing regarding their organizational safety goals and objectives. Therefore, they do not know what to fix, improve, do away with or celebrate – leaving only hope that needed corrective actions and process improvements are implemented. I have seen this “don’t ask don’t tell” safety approach so often I eventually felt compelled to give it a name – the Plan, Do, Hope, Pray (PDHP) process. This is not, however, what Deming had in mind.
Lagging Indicators Are Insufficient
Certainly, you want to keep track of your incident data but that is far from sufficient. Incident data is skewed by short-time luck (good or bad), the vagaries of statistical variance, and especially when you make injury rates goals, fudged numbers. If incident data is all you use to evaluate your safety effort you are essentially managing safety in the dark.
Making the Check Step Real
Do not ignore your lagging indicators, just understand their limitations. A truly effective check step, however, demands more and better information. For example:
- Leading indicators. Leading indicators will vary from organization to organization depending on their goals and objectives but are essential to identify and correct problems and identify opportunities for risk reduction before injuries or illnesses occur. Some examples include: (1) the rate and timeliness of corrective action completion, (2) completion of required maintenance (especially for safety critical equipment) (3) completion of required training, (4) percentage of workforce engaged in safety improvement initiatives, and (5) number of improvement suggestions and/or problem reports received from the workforce.
- Real time feedback loops. There should be several feedback loops that provide timely information on work as it occurs in the field. Post work reviews, problem reports, observation and inspection data are a few examples.
- Work observation data. Previous articles have discussed work observations in considerable detail, but it is worth repeating. If you are not looking at work, especially safety critical work, in the field your knowledge of work reality rather than work as imagined/hoped is, at best, incomplete.
- Inspection and assessment data (internal and external). You may not always have external data, but you should have valuable data from internal inspections and assessments.
- Incident investigation findings. Hopefully there isn’t a great deal of this kind of data, but its importance should be obvious.
- Study and evaluation of the above inputs. What does it all mean? Safety folks have a very important role here in making sense of what can be an imposing amount of data. It is critically important, however, that management is significantly involved in the study (Deming preferred the term study over check) and evaluation of the check step inputs. Much better to have management come to its own conclusions regarding the state of safety than to hand the conclusions to them. Safety professionals should embrace their roles as management guides – not management replacements.
- Act on information. Identify the corrective actions and improvement opportunities from the check step for implementation in the Act step. This is how your system continuously improves and evolves.
Subsequent articles will focus on the role of safety staff in assuring that safety assessments reflect reality and help in driving continuous improvement.
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Mr. Loud’s over 40 years of safety experience includes 15 years with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he served as the supervisor of Safety and Loss Control for a large commercial nuclear facility and later as manager of the corporate nuclear safety oversight body for all three of TVA’s nuclear sites. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he headed the independent assessment organization responsible for safety, health, environmental protection, and security oversight of all Laboratory operations.
Mr. Loud is a regular presenter at national and international safety conferences. He is the author of numerous papers and articles. Mr. Loud is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP), and a retired Certified Hazardous Materials Manager (CHMM). He holds a BBA from the University of Memphis, an MS in Environmental Science from the University of Oklahoma and an MPH in Occupational Health and Safety from the University of Tennessee.