I am blessed to have led hundreds of the best and brightest construction minds throughout my 40-year career in the building industry. Leading this many people and seeing how many different construction organizations operate, it has become clear to me that the success of any team or project comes down to one key factor: safety.
A colleague recently gave me a book called “The Power of Habit,” by Charles Duhigg. The book is a great collection of stories about why habits exist and how we can change them. One chapter in particular stood out to me. The chapter recounted the story of Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, a large American aluminum manufacturer. When O’Neill took over leadership of the company, profits were waning and labor relations were strained. To address these issues, O’Neill did not turn to new manufacturing techniques or leaner operations; instead, he focused on improving the company’s safety record.
The story illustrated how a focus on safety throughout Alcoa’s operations forced all of its employees to analyze each step of the manufacturing process for risks. Along the way, workers found ways to improve procedures that both decreased risk of injury and sped up the manufacturing process. Attention to safety also exposed quality control issues, which were quickly resolved. According to O’Neill, “Protecting employees at Alcoa requires us to better the best, better each day.” As you can guess, Alcoa’s overall corporate performance quickly improved.
This story touched me deeply and reinforced a philosophy that I have lived by for many years. Start with safety and you will change the habits, attitude and performance of your team. Here are a few reasons why I believe this is true:
1. It is difficult to argue the importance of safety
When you are in a dangerous business like construction — or aluminum manufacturing — the possibility of death in the workplace is real. A culture of safety championed by leaders who genuinely care about their workers is tough to grumble about at the water cooler. Investment in people’s safety is a moral obligation, and when it is you holding this obligation above all others, you are telling your staff that you truly care about them.
2. Safe people are smart people, and smart people don’t do dumb things
I have seen over and over again that the extra attention required to work safe changes the way an individual sees their job and the environment around them. Safe project sites tend to be clean and well organized. Safe project sites tend to have less quality issues and fewer delays. Conversely, unsafe project sites tend to be unorganized and inefficient, factors that tend to cause poor quality and performance from teams.
3. If your team buys into a culture of safety, they will buy in on all levels
Leaders are constantly frustrated by the lack of “buy-in” or engagement across their teams. A concept that is so clear for a leader can be muddy as it works its way through the organization. I have found if you start with a cultural message that values people, like workplace safety, your team will be more open to messaging around other corporate initiatives. The key is to never, under any circumstances, place safety second to other corporate activities. Placing safety second will quickly undo all the positive momentum you have gained.
Whether you are a multi-national corporation or a small business owner with a few team members, focusing on safety as a key performance indicator will signal to your team that you care, it will improve your job performance, and ultimately, you will see that investment return to your bottom line.