Agile Culture Part 5B - How To Enhance Safety

Last time we started to look at safety and what that could mean for your organisation. We looked at some historic disasters (and there are many more than those BTW, I wasn't short of examples) and how a lack of safety played into those. We also started to look at what we could learn from those disasters about the sorts of safety issues that could be lurking in your organisation. Today we'll continue looking at safety and how we can start to build a culture based on respect and trust. Before I do though, I should show you just how prevalent safety problems are in the workplace, because you may well be thinking "that can't be my organisation". Guess what, it probably is.

In 2018, The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey canvassed 1,176 Australian employees and found that: 

Only 23 per cent of lower income-earning frontline employees felt their workplace was “psychologically safe” to take a risk, compared to 45 per cent of workers on significantly higher incomes.
A “psychologically safe” workplace is characterised by a climate of interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people feel comfortable being themselves to make mistakes or take risks in their work.

23% of frontine employees feel safe to take a risk. That means that 23% of your call centre staff feel able to raise a serious quality issue with management. Even looking at the higher income employees, 45% felt safe. That's less than half. Less than half of your engineers feel safe to report a problem to their management. It's probably even worse than that at your organisation though, because those safe employees tended to be clustered in a few organisations. Those organisations had very high percentages of staff feeling safe, mostly because they had spent time and effort building a safe culture. The rest of the organisations had much, much lower percentages. "But my managers tell me that people feel safe". They probably do. What manager wants to be known for leading a department where the culture is based on fear (even if it is)? Have you asked the people directly? No? That's probably part of the problem. Even if you have, someone senior suddenly appearing and asking whether someone feels safe is just about guaranteed to make them feel unsafe. So, how do we know whether we have a safety problem, and what do we do about it?

To really gauge the culture in your organisation, you need to go see for yourself. In Lean this is know as going to the Gemba - the place of work. Genchi Genbutsu - real place real work. Go and talk to people at all levels in the organisation. Don't do it as a one off. Don't just appear, ask a few questions about safety and leave. That's guaranteed to make people feel unsafe. You need to build up a relationship with the people. Just go and observe. Regularly. Make yourself known. Talk to them at lunch. Help clear some obstacles if you can. Build trust. Once people trust you they will start to behave normally around you.

Observe what happens in meetings. Do people ask difficult questions? Do they raise issues? What happens when they do? Is there robust discussion? Or are eyes rolled and issues ignored. Are junior members of the team speaking up? If they do what do the senior ones do? Address the question? Or ignore it? Do junior members get shouted down or dismissed? What about when they are talking to their managers? Is the discussion free and open? Or is everyone just agreeing with the boss? Look at the interactions.

Look at the status reports you are getting. Then go and talk to the teams directly. Do they agree? Do they differ? Is there an uncomfortable silence and shuffling of feet when you ask whether the project is really green? Look at your direct reports and look at how they behave with you. Look at how they behave with your boss. What's their comfort level? Are they questioning and challenging you? Or just agreeing. Do people agree face to face then later produce an email or slide pack that differs from what was discussed? Will people commit? Or do they need to constantly go away to "do more research" before making a commitment?

"I run a big organisation, I don't have time to visit everyone personally". No, you don't, so you will need a team behind you. Pick some of your senior people, ones who get it. Share that load with them. Pick a part of the organisation each and dive in. You may need a whole bunch of people. That's OK. As you dive in, you will find people who are open, honest and passionate. Grab them and add them to your team.

If you are doing this, and getting increasingly worried by what you are seeing, the good news is that the person who can change things is you. Safety starts from the top. You may not be the top top, but you are top enough. Even if you only run one team, you can change things for that team. The even better news is that this won't cost anything. You don't need to spend money on training or consultants (unless you really want to). All you need to do is to call out and (gently) correct unsafe behaviour whenever you see it. So when that junior tester is being scolded for interrupting the architect mid flight with a potential problem, jump in "That's a great observation, I think we need to address that before we move on". When that engineer is being made to run the gauntlet and justify slipping a date to correct a major defect, step in and thank them for coming forward. Turn the conversation around and ask management to justify why it should ship with that defect. Model the behaviour you want to see. Publicly reward the right behaviour. That engineer that identified the problem - haul them up at the next staff all hands, thank them and give them a reward, even a free coffee card, for helping to save the organisation from a bad release. Reward good behaviour publicly, and quickly. Even an email sent straight after a meeting thanking someone for their contribution will work wonders.

What about people who don't model the right behaviour? Who persist in doing the wrong things? Pull them aside. Talk to them. Explain what the impacts are. Pair them up with a mentor who does the right thing. Get them a coach. If they won't or can't change because of personality or ingrained habit, you might need to move them on. Make sure any new hires are hired on the basis of the right behaviours and attitude. Make the right behaviours part of the on-boarding process for everyone at all levels of the organisation. 

Above all else, be honest and transparent in your dealings with people. If you make a mistake, 'fess up. Publicly. People can spot a hypocrite a mile away so if you want people to behave a certain way, you better behave that way yourself. You will mess up and do the wrong thing. Admit it. Apologise to those impacted and move on.

The key to an organisation developing a safety culture and leveraging that to enable its people, embrace learning and quality with supportive leaders isn't a matter of hiring the best consultants, or the best coaches (although they can help you on the journey). The key to all that is you. The behaviours you model will be the behaviours that everyone under you will model as well. It will take time. It will be difficult. It will cause problems. It will be worth it.