How Organizational Culture Drives Safety and Quality

What does safety have to do with quality? More than you might think, says Andy Evans in this PEX Network interview. Many of the cultural traits that can be seen in an organisation with a good safety culture are just the traits that underpin quality improvement, says Evans, Head of Airworthiness with a major defence contractor. In this interview, Evans also talks about his work with the world’s largest helicopter operator, Bristow Group, where he launched and project managed Bristow’s ‘Target Zero’ cultural change project.

PEX Network: You’ve written quite extensively on the link between safety, culture and systems. What do we mean when we talk about the "culture" of a business?

A. Evans: There have been many academic debates over what ‘culture’ is since the term began to be used in relation to organisations in the early 1980s. ‘Safety culture’ started to become widely used after the International Atomic Energy Authority published a report that discussed the concept in 1988, following the Chernobyl accident.

One simplistic definition of ‘culture’ is that it’s ‘the way that we do things around here’, but this can lead to confusion if interpreted simply as being defined by an organisation’s procedures.

In fact, culture is really an attribute of how collective values, beliefs, expectations and commitments actually affect individual behaviour at all levels. Culture is influenced by far more than just the management system and procedures.

PEX Network: What drives culture? How do you influence it?

A. Evans: The biggest influence on an organisation’s culture is the leadership within the organisation. By this I don’t simply mean the people holding senior positions but activity of leadership, both by the most senior management and by others.

Management and leadership are fundamentally different activities both generally and in relation to safety (or quality). Leadership focuses more on people and ultimately influences their behaviour. Management focuses more on analysis, control and scheduling of resources. It is important to understand that although different, these overlapping activities are both vital to the successful functioning of any organisation.

While managers are appointed, leadership is not linked to one’s position in the organisation.

One of the beliefs at Bristow was that ‘everyone can be a safety leader’ and influence the safety culture. So one of the main aims was to put that belief into action, to develop a pro-safety peer pressure and willingness to stand up for safety. As a result of introducing various safety leadership development and education initiatives was a dramatic and sustained improvement in Bristow’s already industry leading safety performance.

PEX Network: Why do you think culture plays such an important role?

A. Evans: Culture is such a pervasive influence because it relates to the shared understandings and common behaviours across the people in an organisation. As a result it can have an often unconscious affect on people’s actions and decisions.

PEX Network: Where do management systems and processes fit in?

A. Evans: The activity of leadership (influencing culture, teamwork and individuals) will have a limited benefit unless it is supported by management activity (developing strategy, setting goals and managing tasks).

Management systems and procedures should be influenced by an organisation’s culture. An organisation whose culture values responsive customer service, for example, should in particular ensure that this is an aspect of their processes that is continually being optimised.

Management systems and procedures can also have an affect on the culture, though not as powerfully as leadership behaviour. For example, having a clear and simple way to report safety concerns will help encourage reporting safety issues be an accepted norm. In contrast, a cumbersome and time consuming system not only discourages reporting but sends the message that such reports aren’t really valued.

Good leadership can also make the difference when making changes to management systems and processes. Often when such changes fail it is because the human element was not full considered and the organisation’s culture effectively resists the change.

PEX Network: What role does organisational culture play in terms of safety?

A. Evans: The key to managing safety is to identify hazards and control the associated risk before a loss occurs. The full involvement of an alert and mindful workforce, unafraid to raise concerns, suggest improvements and be assertive in avoiding unacceptable risks is vital. A positive safety culture welcomes this behaviour, so that individuals encourage each other and the safety culture in fact becomes stronger.

Culture also has a major influence on what level of risk people are prepared to accept.

Sadly there remain organisations with a pathological safety culture who at best simply begrudgingly comply with the minima of regulation and at worst connive not to get caught when they operate outside the regulations.

PEX Network: How does a focus on safety culture help to drive quality improvement?

A. Evans: Many of the cultural traits that can be seen in an organisation with a good safety culture (the willingness to be alert, question the status quo, report, learn, improve etc) are just the traits that underpin quality improvement. In fact in recent years Bristow’s Target Zero initiative has successfully expanded to drive wider quality benefits.