How Your Culture Can Impact Safety and Project Delivery—and Ultimately, Your Bottom Line

October 2018

 

by Kiersten Rippeteau, CODP, Palmer Consulting Group

In the construction industry, safety scores and project delivery are often our measures of success. When ratings are high in these areas, lenders trust the business to perform, employees trust the business to take care of them, and owners have a positive experience and are likely to return. In short, safety and project delivery are two of the strongest influencers on your bottom line.

You’ve probably been through training programs, organizational change programs, or communications campaigns as part of efforts to improve safety and project delivery. Each of these tools has its place, but what does it take to actually realize these improvements? Is there a silver bullet? If you define “silver bullet” as an easy fix that doesn’t take much time or effort, then no. But if you define “silver bullet” as the one thing that, with commitment and hard work, will have the highest level of long-term impact, then yes—absolutely. And in this case, that one thing is culture.

Tools like training or change programs and communications often don’t take into consideration the culture in which they are implemented. A training program will have limited impact in an organization that doesn’t truly embrace a training mentality. Organizational change methods will only go so far if leadership doesn’t support and embrace the change itself. When employees see a clear disconnect between words and actions, communications fall on deaf ears. It takes sustained and consistent behavior from each individual in your organization to realize the benefits of these tools. And what drives behavior? You guessed it—culture.

So let’s talk about how your culture can impact safety and project delivery—and ultimately, your bottom line.

In this article, we’ll explore two of your business’s operational levers that can be pulled to influence and shift your culture for increased safety and project delivery successes: Structure and Skills and Abilities.

Culture’s Impact on Safety

We know what safety behaviors look like, but how are leaders impacting safety behaviors on job sites when the training is over and carrying out the behaviors matters most? Research published in Safety Science in 2016 tells us that—perhaps more so than safety training itself—management and senior leadership behaviors are keys to developing safe work behaviors on construction sites. Author Jitwasinkul and his colleagues found that when frontline supervisors are seen as “open, approachable, accessible, and helpful, soliciting and following up on workers’ suggestions,” safety behaviors will increase.

The question for leaders, then, is what levers can we pull to create a culture that allows our frontline supervisors to be “open, approachable, and accessible?”

Shifting Your Leadership Culture

For safety, let’s look at the structure lever. If perceived approachability of frontline supervisors dictates safety behaviors, then organizational structure matters. Let’s say your senior leadership team has set the expectation that frontline supervisors are “open, approachable, and accessible” to their people to increase jobsite safety behaviors. Here are some questions you might ask about your structure:

  • Is the job of a frontline supervisor designed to allow time to be accessible?
  • Are rewards in place for them to be open to safety concerns from their people, or do current rewards actually incentivize them to ignore safety concerns?
  • Are there too many layers between senior leadership and frontline supervisors to effectively communicate new expectations? If so, how might that change or what communication channels could be put in place?

The structure lever can also impact the level of influence and empowerment your employees have, improving the ability of frontline supervisors to follow up on suggestions.

  • Is there role clarity so that people know who they should go to if they have a safety concern?
  • Does the current reward system create incentive or disincentive for team members to address safety concerns?
  • Do business processes make it easy and timely for senior leadership to act on safety feedback when they receive it?

As you assess your structure and are able to either affirm it or make changes, you inevitably start to shape your culture. By pulling the structure lever, you can create a culture of “open, approachable, and accessible” leadership that will in turn drive safety behaviors.

Culture’s Impact on Project Delivery

In 2015, researchers Loosemore and Lim published a study showing that perceived fairness plays a role in how well people collaborate along the project delivery supply chain. As you can likely attest to, when people collaborate well, jobs are more likely to be completed on time, on budget, and with the expected quality. So how can your organization influence perceived fairness to those you need to collaborate with along the project delivery chain? Pull on the skills and abilities lever.

(Let’s clarify that by “fairness” we are not talking about making all players along the project delivery chain happy all the time. Most people understand that some situations will not go their way. They are far more likely to take those situations in stride if they feel they’ve been part of a collaborative process.)

Shifting Your Collaboration Culture

The best way to influence perceived fairness to those you need to collaborate with is to ensure the people in your organization managing relationships along the project delivery chain are able to be goal-focused, facilitate tasks, and—quite simply—to be considerate. Equip your people with these abilities, set expectations that they are put to use every day, and your culture will do the work for you. Senior leadership doesn’t need to micromanage the field or play relationship referee if you can rely on the fact that your people’s behaviors are consistently aligned with the way you do business.

Here are some questions you might ask about whether your organization is equipping your people with the skills and abilities to support perceived fairness and drive collaboration across the project delivery chain:

  • Is there one clear goal that applies to all projects? Establishing one clear goal for all projects makes decision-making and prioritizing straight-forward for your people in the field. It creates consistency and transparency, and reduces “emotional decisions” that might get made in the face of tension or conflict. Consistent, transparent, logic-based decisions guided by a single goal go a long way in establishing trust and increasing perceived fairness.
  • Have you developed your people in the field to be problem-solvers and process improvers? These two skills enable your people to facilitate tasks; to ensure the task at hand is getting done as effectively and efficiently as possible. The investment in these skills will pay dividends in successful project delivery.
  • Have you enabled your people in the field to be considerate? The truth is, most people are considerate by nature. Unfortunately, some organizations create expectations counter to being considerate (e.g., “winning,” maintaining power at all costs, and so on). These expectations create behaviors that break down trust and eventually have a negative impact on project delivery outcomes. Make sure your organization is setting expectations that allow your people to be considerate team players along the project delivery chain, and you are more likely to influence collaboration and improve project delivery.

You Can See Culture

You’ve likely heard phrases like, “Culture is elusive” or “You can’t see culture.” However, culture is seen in budgets and in organizational charts; where the organization invests its time and resources. Culture is seen in employees’ and leaders’ actions; how their environment motivates them to behave and how they treat partners and vendors. Because you can see it, you can improve it. Make the effort to pull on these or other operational levers that can improve your culture, and see what dividends it pays for you and your people.

Kiersten Rippeteau, CODP, is an OD Business Consultant for Palmer Consulting Group’s Organizational Strategy Group (Palmer OSG). Rippeteau specializes in Organization Design, Organization Development, and Culture for the Construction industry. You can learn more at PalmerOSG.com or contact Rippeteau at kiersten.rippeteau@palmerosg.com.

 

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