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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Zero Injuries, Waste, and Harm

By making safety a responsibility of our line managers and embedding it in our culture, we’re taking a different approach. I have seen how other companies handle safety, and few of them embed it in their operations and make it the responsibility of their line managers, the way we aim to do. Of our roughly 50,000 employees, between 1,000 and 2,000 are plant managers who receive formal training in best practices related to safety.

Safety as a Foundation of Corporate Success

Embedded safety and sustainability, as we call it, is one of AkzoNobel’s five strategic focus areas. (The other four are care for the customer, reduction of product and process complexity, cash and return on investment, and diverse and inclusive talent development.) We believe we have to excel and do a better job than other companies do in all these areas. They are the key areas that our board of directors and CEO pay attention to, and are the foundational elements of our success. In the case of embedded safety and sustainability, the logic—the connection between achieving our goals and being financially successful—is pretty simple. If you have a safe plant, it will be well maintained and reliable, and people will like working there. That isn’t the only thing you need in order to have a plant that’s competitive and profitable, but it’s probably the most important starting point.

Our journey toward improving our safety performance has had some ancillary benefits. For instance, we’ve now got a mechanism for training new plant managers. Most manufacturers promote people on the basis of their talent and past performance—and don’t often bother to communicate expectations or train these high-achieving individuals. At our company, new plant managers get formal training in the common safety platform.

In addition, our development of a transformation process for safety—one that will take us from a high level of cross-site variability to a high level of cross-site consistency—may serve as a model for other change efforts. We could apply a similar change model to human resources, finance, or procurement, three other areas where our processes differ widely.

Still on the Journey

Where are we now? Our safety maturity scores are going up, and because they’re a leading indicator, we are confident that our injury rate (a lagging indicator) will go down. Already we’ve seen higher engagement scores at locations with high safety maturity ratings—those scores show how committed employees are to the company’s success and how satisfied they are with their jobs. We can’t be sure which is the chicken and which is the egg when it comes to safety maturity and engagement. But we know there’s a correlation.

Safety, in the end, is akin to a pyramid where the basic level of development is at the bottom and organizations rise through different levels. At the base are situations where safety is imposed from the outside—through a central department or even through a government overseer. At a higher level, safety becomes an individual responsibility. And then, in the most evolved stage, safety becomes a group responsibility, with everyone looking out for everyone else.

It’s far too early in our journey to claim superlative achievements, but it would be hard to be more ambitious about HSE goals than we are. It’s our intention to be the best company in the world in HSE, and we feel as if we’re on the road to achieving that goal.

The Rudiments of HSE

AkzoNobel’s push to eliminate all worker injuries and become a leader in safety and environmental performance relies on five central elements:

  • Transparency. Each of AkzoNobel’s 240 manufacturing plants rates itself with a safety maturity score between 0 (the lowest possible level) and 10 (the highest); the scores are available to all plant managers within the company and to the CEO. The idea is that such transparency will help managers gauge their plant’s performance in relation to that of their peers and show specific areas where they need to learn from others.
  • Behavior-based safety. Specific behaviors that increase risk are listed at each work site. Workers exhibiting what peers deem “at-risk” behaviors receive prompt, no-blame feedback on what they must do differently.
  • Process safety management (PSM). This is a systematic framework for managing the risks associated with a plant’s operations and processes, as well as any hazardous substances the plant produces. Among other things, PSM covers the development of catastrophe scenarios (and responses), the identification of critical equipment, the investigation of incidents, and the establishment of a training matrix for safety-related competencies.
  • Management of priority substances. AkzoNobel has started a comprehensive program to help identify and phase out the use of substances that pose a risk to human health or the environment. The company’s goal is to be constantly evaluating the safety characteristics of the substances it uses, instead of doing so only in response to regulatory pressure.
  • Embedding of safety practices in the company’s culture. At most companies, HSE is the responsibility of a central function. AkzoNobel is following a different paradigm, training the top managers at all its plants in safety leadership in the belief that this approach will turn the company as a whole into a safety leader.
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