Words: Rob Cooling and Waddah Shihab Ghanem Al Hashemi
Illustration: Gary Neill
Strategy has long been a vogue term in business. Executives say that strategies are needed before rushing head-first into tactical decision making. However, they sometimes struggle to understand the nature and content of effective strategies. Fundamentally, strategy is about making choices; typically concerning what you want to do and how you will achieve it. From a wider business perspective, this may include what products or services to offer and how to execute business decisions.
Strategy also involves making trade-offs as we cannot do everything. All organisations wish to improve OSH performance, but there are many choices to be made in determining what interventions to make. The essence of your OSH strategy is often more about the things that you decide not to do as the ones you choose to do.
Where should you start when it comes to preparing an OSH strategy? Many organisations look at what they did last year and replicate the same activity. Time pressures and budgetary constraints can make it difficult to allocate sufficient resources to strategy development, but periodically it is important to take a step back and undertake some exploratory work before building your OSH strategy.
Diagnosis before development
It is difficult to build your organisation’s OSH strategy without some level of diagnosis. You would not like it if you went to the doctor and treatment was prescribed before any tests were carried out.
A good starting point in understanding the OSH priorities and barriers in your organisation is to undertake a survey of OSH cultural maturity.Excellent proprietary models are available to help evaluate OSH culture.
Although these types of tools can be useful in determining the pillars of your OSH strategy, it is important to note the following points:
- tailor questions to address industry-specific or organisation-specific requirements
- survey a representative demographic sample, including different levels of the organisation (such as senior management, middle management and frontline workers) and the whole labour force (including contract labour and agency workers)
- provide the survey in other languages with translation support for workers who do not speak English as a first language
- use more than one form of survey delivery (such as email links and face to face sessions) to ensure a high completion rate
- follow up with interviews and other focused study groups to determine high priorities and barriers.
The growth of online survey tools, such as Survey Monkey, means that options are also available for creating your own tailored surveys at a much lower cost. So with a little thought and effort you can undertake your own studies of the prevailing OSH culture in order to understand what to do next.
The forthcoming ISO 45001 safety systems management standard will increase the emphasis on OSH strategy and leadership
Building a vision
Once you have a diagnosis of the status quo, the next step in creating an effective OSH strategy involves defining a vision.
The ability to describe the future you desire in terms that employees can understand is a crucially important part of defining an OSH vision. It helps people visualise the journey you want them to take and ensure the decisions they make are consistent with that vision.
Research suggests there are a number of key features of a compelling OSH vision. When evaluating a vision, it is important to ask the following questions – does the vision:
- create a vivid image in people’s heads that provokes emotion and excitement?
- provide clear direction that people can understand and act upon?
- present an audacious and aspirational time-bound goal?
- establish a picture of the future state of the organisation?
The term “zero” is commonly adopted in OSH visions – “zero harm”, “target zero”, even “beyond zero”. A vision that incorporates zero can be an effective way of instilling clarity in an OSH vision. But make sure you take time to consider the context of your organisation and criteria for deciding when a zero-based vision has been achieved.
Don’t fall into the trap of the “copy and paste” zero harm vision. Take time to understand OSH priorities and barriers and create a vision tailored to your business.
Once a vision has been formalised it needs to be communicated effectively to the workforce. Training provides an ideal opportunity to communicate the vision but it should be reinforced periodically using other forms of communication, such as posters, leaflets and text messages. Always involve top management in communication, to ensure the critical messages remain in the minds of the workforce.
An effective strategy should provide clear direction on the activities required to achieve your OSH goals. The creation of a glossy and compelling vision is not enough – you need to ensure that this is supported by a clear, time-bound implementation plan that lays out the journey required to achieve your vision.
Achieving an aspirational vision may be regarded as unrealistic by the workforce, particularly if the organisation has poor OSH performance. In this case, change needs to be broken down into more manageable phases to instil confidence in the workforce that OSH goals are realistic. Presenting a vision as a journey, as opposed to a short-term requirement, may help develop the mindset that gradual improvements in OSH performance may ultimately lead to accomplishing the goal.
A roadmap incorporating more concrete and proximal sub-goals may help prompt movement towards the ultimate destination.
Often the most difficult aspect of any change effort is initiating people to change their behaviour but if you reduce the degree of change, they will perceive the goal as more visible and within reach. When creating sub-goals, it is important to measure OSH performance against these goals periodically. However, people tend to focus on negative aspects when assessing performance. From a behavioural perspective, it is also critical to emphasise how far we have come, as opposed to how far we have to go. This will help to create a sense of accomplishment and generate the impetus that is needed to improve further.
Creating a framework
An important component in developing an OSH strategy is to establish strategic outcomes, each one deemed necessary to achieve your overarching OSH vision and mission. Associated programmes (or projects) will help ensure that each strategic objective is achieved. Try applying this model when creating your strategic OSH framework. Also make sure to create an implementation plan incorporating milestones for completing each programme, remembering that programmes should detail the responsibilities of those involved and timeframes for completion.
Building strategic agility
So you have developed a comprehensive OSH strategy that paints a clear picture of what the future will look like – now all you have to do is push on and implement the actions in your strategy and realise your vision.
In practice, it is not quite as simple as that. The reality is that, even with the best-crafted strategy, it is unlikely that you will achieve all your OSH goals as, over time, things change, or, as the management academic Henry Mintzberg would say, “stuff happens!” We live in turbulent times and a wide range of internal and external variables can affect OSH standards and ultimately performance. It is important to build agility into your OSH strategy so your organisation can be resilient and respond to significant change.
The forthcoming introduction of the ISO 45001 safety systems management standard will increase the emphasis on OSH strategy and leadership. Significantly, the standard will follow the requirements of a new high-level structure set out in Annex SL, which is also used as a framework for other ISO management standards, including ISO 9001 and ISO 14001. Annex SL includes a number of new ideas, including “context of the organisation”.
This concept will require you to examine the internal and external factors which could affect your business, such as changes in employee relations, new materials or technologies, and then look at the risks they pose. If we can understand uncertainties better we can respond to them better and develop our strategic agility.
To identify emerging OSH issues, organisations will need to establish capability for horizon scanning. The Health and Safety Executive undertakes its own horizon scanning research to help increase awareness of developments, trends and other potential changes in the world of work. This includes imagining a range of possible futures to identify and describe their OSH implications, with current work focusing on scenarios for OSH in 2017 (www.hse.gov.uk/horizons/scenarios/index.htm). Although scenario building may not be necessary for most organisations, an understanding of horizon scanning can be important in developing resilience and enabling your organisation to become more proactive in identifying potential changes which may have an impact on OSH standards.
Stakeholder management is another critical component in creating an agile OSH strategy. To understand the landscape in which your organisation is operating, it is fundamental to identify the stakeholders capable of influencing your organisation’s OSH performance. Achieving good OSH performance requires a partnership approach, but many organisations do not fully consider the implications of actions of others outside their organisation. The concept of “context of the organisation” in ISO 45001 will require organisations to spend more time considering the roles of stakeholders, particularly when evaluating external influences on OSH.
If you have not identified all the stakeholders in your sector and determined their relative importance in achieving your OSH performance goals, try making a list of them and then draw a simple two-by-two matrix. On one axis is the level of interest that the stakeholder has in your OSH performance. For example, an OSH regulator may have a high level of interest in how many accidents you have. On the other axis is the level of power that the stakeholder has influencing your OSH performance. If you have a large number of contractors on your site then they may have a significant impact on your OSH performance. The position of each stakeholder on the matrix will dictate your intervention strategy. Notably, if you have stakeholders that have both high level of interest and power in terms of your OSH performance, then it is critical to employ a participative approach, encouraging their active involvement in your OSH decisions.