When I look at the safety industry, I'm often left thinking that we need a real paradigm shift. We typically focus on the grand outcomes of our safety programs: big dips in incident rates, like DART and LTIFR, and cutting costs down by the millions. Those outcomes are important, of course, but by keeping our eyes locked on them, we often overlook a lot of the small steps that will help us achieve those goals.

Marginal Gains

We need to remember that the big picture is really made up of small details. When it comes to safety, that means that major improvements are usually built out of a series of small, incremental measures.

That insight is at the heart of the philosophy behind a number of safety approaches concerned with marginal gains, or continuous improvements, including Ford's use of Edwards Deming's “14 Points of Management” and Toyota’s “kaizen” program. These approaches vary in their details but share a few core ideas: seeking small but measurable improvements over time, getting all employees and administrative staff involved, and tracking results.

Build the Team

According to the Kaizen Institute, one of the most notable features of kaizen is that big results come from many small changes accumulated over time. One way it achieves this is through teamwork. Everyone in an organization driven by the kaizen philosophy—from part-time workers to the CEO—is involved in identifying potential improvements to safety, no matter how small. With everyone working together on this, it doesn't take long for those marginal gains to snowball into great successes.

The U.S. Department of Labor holds that health and safety programs should "foster a proactive approach to finding and fixing job site hazards before they can cause injury or illness." Rather than reacting to an incident, in other words, management and workers should collaborate to identify and solve issues before they occur (learn more about Leveraging Leading Indicators to Drive Safety). Not only does this improve safety outcomes, but the collaboration builds trust, enhances communication, and can lead to other business improvements.

Making marginal gains everyone's responsibility has a beneficial ripple effect. Everyone on the team begins to see the job site with fresh eyes and they adopt an attitude that improves the company's safety culture (learn The Essential Elements for Creating a Workplace Safety Culture).

Continuous Improvement

Deming’s "14 Points of Management" calls for constancy of purpose in the quest for continual improvement of products and service to society. This unrelenting, unwavering focus on improvement is critical to maintaining and sustaining process improvements in the long term.

Building this momentum ensures that when changes are made, no matter how small they are, they are not forgotten. Repeating and reinforcing the new behavior will keep employees from falling back into the former way of doing things. Continuous improvement programs aren't merely management initiatives; they're long-term practices that should permeate everything an organization does.

Reinforce and Track New Behavior

With advanced technology, tracking the measurable outcomes of small, incremental changes has never been easier. But technology needs to be more than just sophisticated; it also has to be self service and user friendly. Business intelligence tools are most effective when they allow company and safety leaders to visualize the data and gain direct insights into their operations (find out How Predictive Analytics Is Changing the Game for Safety Reporting Best Practices).

Using the right software solution allows you to track safety incidents, vehicle incidents, occupational injury and illness, safety objectives and targets, and safety policy. The data can be accessed at any time from mobile devices across job sites and facilities. Even with everyone working to improve work processes, these monitoring tools will ensure that none of the marginal gains your team achieves will escape notice.

Collecting and accessing data about safety performance allows safety professionals to reinforce the importance of marginal gains by regularly present the results during safety meetings. Safety managers can also use safety software to conveniently collect and compile employees' suggestions about improvements to the work process.

It can be difficult to resist the temptation to always focus our attention on big, long-term achievements. Sophisticated data analysis and software allow us to connect the dots between marginal gains and large-scale benefits by revealing to us just how each small improvement leads to long-term outcomes.