Friday, January 6, 2012

Making People Care About Quality and Safety

Executive Summary:
The biggest challenge to any Quality or Safety program is convincing people to take it seriously.  We cannot control peoples’ thoughts.  To get people to care, we must demonstrate that we care, that we expect them to care, and we must make it one of the cultural values of the organization.

The Rest of the Story:
We cannot make people do anything.  Least of all can we make people think or believe what we want them to think or believe.  We can only influence and compel.  Therefore, it is through our actions that we will exercise the greatest influence over our peers, our leaders, and our personnel.  Even policy will break down if the actions of the people, particularly the leaders, are contrary to, or diminish the importance of, the policy.

Understanding this, it is not enough to merely make quality and safety part of your organization’s policy.  Nor is it enough to simply say that quality or safety are values of your organization.  To make people care about such things, we must make them important.  We do so by demonstrating that they are important, not by saying so.  So much for the obvious, let’s talk about some methods.

A cultural value is a principle or ideal that should not be compromised.  It is an ideal that dictates beliefs and motivates actions and decisions.  In political or religious terms, values are the ideals that civilizations go to war over.  Consider this.

If you want people to care about quality or safety, then make them uncompromised values of your organizational culture.  They must be ideals to go to war over.

So how do we go about demonstrating that and influencing others to adopt the same ideal and beliefs?  There are a number of things we can all do, from the executive to the individual contributor.  Here are some examples and ideas.  Consider them and begin to add to it with your own.

Do not let a leader from another function veto or override the decision of the Quality or Safety representative or group or policy.  The minute a leader overrides a quality or safety determination the quality or safety value just got downgraded to secondary consideration.

If you are subordinate to a leader who would make a decision or take an action that is contrary to the quality or safety direction, make a polite but firm point that doing so will have an adverse long-term impact.  “Sir, if we do this then everything we say and claim about quality will be perceived by our personnel and our customers as a lie.  We will never get our credibility back.”  My example language is strong, but it is also truthful.

When asked for your opinion or suggestion, take the “high road” even when you know that it will not be popular or that it will make things more difficult.  It is a way for any of us, regardless of station or responsibility to maintain and demonstrate that quality and safety are values to be upheld, not poker chips to be gambled or traded.  If you think that your voice is not influential, consider first that your were asked so it must be of value, and second that no one will disrespect someone for standing up for their values, but anyone will lose respect for crumpling under pressure.  Lastly, executives can be, and have been, nudged into doing the right thing when an individual contributor points out how obvious and plain the right thing is. 

If you witness something that is contrary to the quality or safety agenda, simply ask, “why?”  “Why did you initial that drawing without reviewing it first?  If you don’t have time, then why did you agree to review it?  Why would you sign your name saying that the quality is good if you really don’t know?  Don’t you value your reputation?”  In short, it asks a person why they don’t value what you value or what we all expect them to value without telling them what they should do or believe.  It works on leaders too.  “Why would you ask me to do that?  It doesn’t seem like the right thing to do to me.”

If you are reading this post, then we can fairly assume that you already care about safety and quality and want to know how to influence others.  Keep doing what you are doing and demonstrating that you care.  Proactively check yourself to make sure that other people’s poor habits surrounding quality or safety haven’t also rubbed off on you.  If you find something to correct, correct it and vocalize that you are correcting it.  “You know, I realized that I have been…   …which isn’t right so I’m not going to do that anymore.  Would you help me to make sure that I don’t?”

If you get into an argument over quality or safety and run out of compelling rationale or it becomes clear that you are not going to win, don’t accept the other’s opinion (unless of course they are right).  Terminate the discussion with, “It’s clear that we are not going to agree.  I’ve said what I believe.”  Stick to your values, but it’s not constructive to continue the argument.  You might not win this round, but you will leave your mark on everyone present and they will remember.

When you witness an example of someone doing the right thing for quality or safety thank him or her on the spot.  “It makes me feel good to see that quality is important and that you uphold it.”  It doesn’t matter who you are, the comment will get a person’s attention and re-enforce the right behavior.  Actually, for many it will mean more coming from a peer or even a stranger than it will from a senior leader.  For others that senior leader attention will mean a great deal.  Bottom line, whoever you are, look for opportunities to compliment the good behaviors.

If you learn about an action or decision that works against the quality or safety agenda after it has been made, talk privately with the individual who did it.  Suppose it is your direct manager.  “I’m surprised by your decision.  I expected…  I’m afraid that the message everyone is getting is…”  Let that decision maker respond, but don’t feel compelled to be drawn into an argument.  Sometimes it is most impactful to simply listen to the response and then go.  If you don’t agree with the rationale, then don’t say, “OK,” or “I understand.”  Just go.  Asking the question and voicing the difference between the action and your expectations sends your message.  If you verbalize an acceptance of the reason, it becomes validated, which is not the value.  Stick to the value, but don’t argue with your leader.

When faced with a difficult decision, default to the right thing for quality or safety.  Let’s take the extreme example of supposing that the safe thing to do will somehow put the business at risk or put the business out.  People will understand if you choose to forego safety to save the business (as long as you are lucky and no one is hurt), but they will respect you for doing the safe thing even though the business fails.  Don’t let the “either way I lose the business, unless I’m lucky” logic rule your decision.  What is better?  Losing the business for doing what was right, or losing the business because you did what was wrong and someone got hurt?  That should be the logic and the answer is obvious.  Obviously, we can reduce the threat level for most of our every-day difficult decisions, but if it works for this threat level, it should work of every other.

Be proactive with safety or quality concerns.  When in the planning stages of an action or project, verbalize the safety or quality agenda.  Ask, “What are we going to do to ensure the quality of the output?  How are we going to protect our personnel with this new practice?”  Again, you don’t necessarily need to be in charge of anything to bring up the concern and have your voice influence everyone else to also think about the safety or quality agenda.  Obviously leaders can be considerably influential in this action.  If you make it a habit of bringing it up during every plan, that habit will transfer.  People will begin to think proactively about how to address your questions and, therefore, will be thinking about safety and quality proactively.

Depending upon your sphere of influence, it can be either quick or slow to begin making a difference in the way people think.  It will be particularly slow if surrounding leaders are behaving contrary to you since when push comes to shove people will be inclined to appease leaders over peers.  However, if you address the agenda privately and politely with your leaders, you can influence them.  Also, if you stick to what you and everyone else knows is right, then you will garner respect and your sphere of influence will increase.

Here are some cautions about what not to do.  It is not good practice to argue with leaders.  Likewise, publicly embarrassing or denouncing our leaders can be both bad for our careers as well as our sphere of influence.  Speaking poorly about our leaders behind their backs (or anyone for that matter) hurts our sphere of influence more than it helps and it too can be very bad for our careers.

You may have noticed that there is a formula to the suggestions presented above.  They basically focus on the following principles.
  • Instead of telling someone what he or she should believe or value, tell him or her what you believe and value
  • Instead of telling someone that what he or she did is wrong, ask him or her why they didn’t do what you both know is right.  Our own words ring in our ears longer than another’s chastisement.
  • It isn’t necessary to force a confession or explanation to make a point
  • We must be living examples of the value in order to transfer that value to others 

The last point is the true success and also the reason for failure when it comes to upholding the values of quality or safety.  When we allow others to compromise those values, or when we fail to uphold those values then they lose importance.  It is true that actions speak louder than words when it comes to communicating our beliefs, principles, and values.

Above are a few suggestions for how to leverage your personal influence on peers, leaders, or subordinates at your workplace.  I hope that I provided enough to present a theme and some suggestions for common scenarios.  If you need more advice or want a mentor in the art of influencing others, seek out skilled professionals with extensive experience and practice, your local church, synagogue, or temple leaders.  Religious leaders make it their life’s work to influence others over whom they have no control.  Whether you are a spiritual person or not, or whether you disagree beliefs with a clergy person, they can still advise well on the art of influence and the price is no more than you feel like sharing with the collection box.

Declare war on behalf of the principles and values of quality and safety.  Go to battle with the elements that undermine the values, but do not declare war on, or do battle with the people.  People are those whom we are trying to save and win over, not our enemy.  Our enemies are the mistaken or misguided actions and decisions that people make.

Follow the suggestions or guidelines that I have presented.  Expand upon them with your own.  Talk it over with like-minded peers or seek mentoring from other influential leaders.  Whether you are an individual contributor in your organization, a middle manager, or an executive, you might be surprised to learn just how influential you can be with your actions, decisions, and polite conversations regarding quality and/or safety.  Exercise your influence and make a difference.

Stay wise, friends.


  1. The problem is that people operate in extremes when it comes to safety. We are very complacent during lull and frantically panicking during an incident. Both are inefficient behaviors during crisis. What we must learn to do is be cautious.

  2. I agree with "fall protection"'s comment. It is best to be consistently alert and careful. Expecting to suddenly become concerned or focused when a crisis occurs is folly. My post encourages all of us to be examples of the consistently concerned and to thus influence our peers and personnel.