"How to improve safety performance?" is a question health and safety professionals attempt to answer on a daily basis. With the much-anticipated Winter Olympics 2018 in full swing, I decided to use my background in elite sports and attempt to answer this question with an example from gymnastics. There has been much written about sports and what workplaces should learn from them, but instead of looking at the broad picture and generic lessons, I decided to use my over 10-year long career in Aesthetic Group Gymnastics and look into a particular aspect that this sport is very good at: identifying and eliminating small mistakes.
Spotting mistakes, perfecting performance and focusing on the tiniest details are at the very essence of this sport. Equally in managing workplace safety, professionals of which I've enjoyed speaking to over the past six months, our ability to detect and eliminate errors and hazards is paramount. I hope my experience combined with yours can inspire you with new ways for creating a safer working environment.
Learning from Elite Sports management styles
Elite sports, like Aesthetic Group Gymnastics or cycling, are a great place to look for examples and ideas for management styles, teamwork, motivation and strategy. The methods they utilize are under constant scrutiny and development by coaches and other sports professionals, which is why they are such a great source of information.
I began my journey towards the World Championships of Aesthetic Group Gymnastics (2008) at the age of 10. I had always been good at sports and tried everything from horseback riding to disco dance. Finally, it was my next-door neighbor that got me involved with the local gymnastics club. I competed on a national level until the age of 17 when I was chosen for the National Team of Finland. My time at the National team was tough, yet rewarding, and it has taught me to work hard in everything I pursue.
Management should be as inspiring as a Sports Coach
To succeed in sports or in an occupation we need inspiration. Professional athletes are very highly motivated; they’ve begun their journey at a very young age, and the goals they set for the future are made “voluntarily”. These are some of the characteristics that will separate the everyday worker from a sportsman. Also, there’s usually a person (an athlete, parent, coach) that functions as the athlete’s source of inspiration. For me that initial inspiration came from the Finnish gymnastics team Dynamot who won gold at the World Championships four times.
There’s one other aspect that defines elite sports: the coach. Whether you’re an individual or a team athlete, there’s always a coach, or coaches, that not only push you with physical exercises, but also encourage and motivate you on a mental level. The coach knows their trainees well, and is therefore able to give them the support and guidance they need. Without the trust and support of a coach, an athlete can never achieve their best.
In any workplace, leadership is equally important. The employee-employer relationship should be seen as paramount to a workplace’s success. Both sides should trust each other, and an open channel for communication must be maintained. It should also be understood that methods such as imposing fear will not result in better performance or safety.
A well-known case from elite sports, that has been used as an example for workplaces by many authors, such as Matthew Syed, is that of the British cycling team whose success in the Summer Olympics of 2012 was the result of an extraordinary strategy called marginal gains.
The achievements of the team have been sourced back to Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s performance director, who led the cyclists to victory by following a principle of marginal gains. This principle meant that even the smallest aspect (1%), whether directly involved with cycling or not, was taken into consideration and improved accordingly. The individual 1% gains accumulated from things such as carrying your best pillow with you to competitions so that a good night’s sleep was guaranteed, or using the most effective massage gel. The overall total of these marginal gains would then have a significant impact on the athletes’ performance, resulting in Sir Bradley Wiggins to becoming Britain’s first ever cyclist to win Tour de France. This is a glowing example of the positive impact that good coaching and innovative strategies can have.
Learning from other industries
Looking for inspiration and learning best practices from other industries can save us a lot of time and effort. Although people in other industries tend to look at things from a different perspective, the mechanisms are adaptable. For example, Aviation is an industry that used to be very dangerous but that now offers the safest form of travel. Its methods are often studied by other industries, such as Oil & Gas, where Aviation is discussed as a shining example of successful safety management and improvement.
Triple gold medallist of the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships and Britain’s representative at the Olympic Games of 1992 and 2000 Matthew Syed has spent the latter part of his career in journalism and is the author for well-known books such as Bounce and Blackbox Thinking. In the latter one, Syed refers to aviation, and points out its excellent way of confronting and learning from mistakes. He discusses failure and how our attitude towards it can restrict our success, agreeing with the line of thought that the single greatest obstacle to progress is failing to learn from our mistakes. As an ex-sportsman, Syed draws on examples of elite sports teams’ management, such as Team Sky’s approach to marginal gains.
Realizing just how much faith the British Cycling Team and many other Olympic participants place in marginal gains, there are certainly valuable lessons for creative Health and Safety professionals to adapt.
Athletes and companies share an understanding of success and goal-setting: both want to improve performance, be the best and find new ways to achieve excellence.
Setting achievable goals for success
Every workplace, function and department has one overarching goal that directs our work and motivates us in the job. Goal setting and performance reviews are part of the daily routine for both safety professionals and athletes. However, measuring performance is now, more than ever, driven by unprecedented amounts of data. Powerful analytical tools have changed the way we view and rely on data, so much so that so-called “big data” is not just a buzzword anymore; it is considered the key to success in the modern world.
Both organizations and athletes use the latest technologies to measure different aspects of their performance: Athletes follow their pulse rate, oxygen intake (Vo2 max) and lactate threshold. Health and safety departments use analytical tools to gather up data to see the latest injury rates, trends and variables, such as man hours worked.
When we have a lot of data at hand, the next thing to do is analyze it. We look at which numbers show decreased performance, consider the reasons for this, and based on the information, set new - ideally SMART - goals. However, for any goal to be achieved, whether it is in sports or safety, there needs to be a system; the means by which we plan to achieve those goals.
The word system here refers to the means that are being used to reach the goals. In sports, “the system” refers to the training plan or routine. At work, it is our daily tasks and the way they are structured. The British cycling team’s system for success was the accumulation of “marginal gains”.
Creating an effective training routine
In gymnastics, the norm is to set an initial plan for the season which covers heavy and light weeks, competitions, performances, holidays, and a recovery plan. This plan is done at the beginning of the season and modified when necessary. Throughout the season we would then face testing (equal to performance review at work) to see if training methods have been efficient enough and whether we were on track with our physiological development.
Since we practiced in teams, on top of the individual short-term goals we had also set targets for our execution as a team. The overall aim of the season – apart from the obvious goal of winning – was to eliminate all errors and master a routine of 2 minutes and 40 seconds. For a total of 11 months, with 18-25 hours a week, we would perfect the routine, repeating it hundreds, and some teams even a thousand times!
At the end of the season, the short routine starts to feel very familiar, but just when you think you can let your brain rest a little, the coach calls your name with another correction! In moments like this you realize that in this sport you cannot simply rely on your muscle memory or get away with an excuse such as “my mind was elsewhere”.
Safety takes no break either. There has been much talk about the human factors in safety, and the ways that their negative impact on safety could be minimized. If we are too tired, for example, there’s a high risk of negligence and forgetfulness. This can then lead to safety risks in the workplace.
Finding mistakes reduces injuries
As Matthew Syed says, we should not let mistakes get on the way of our success. We should learn from them and replace them with better ways. Gymnastics coaches are experts at finding mistakes. Everything from the position of the fingers or the softness of the elbow does not miss their eye. These minor errors (marginal gains that would separate the world champion from the 2nd and 3rd place) would be analyzed and eliminated and practiced with video analysis, peer observation and countless repetitions.
I see the gymnastics routine equal to a construction site where everyone has their responsibilities and tasks but they all work towards the same goal. Now, if the team or an individual gymnast brings up a problem in the routine, the team finds out a way to change it. In a workplace where there’s heavy machinery, many people and lot of hazardous sites, all problems, no matter how marginal, should also be vocalized and solved accordingly. Ultimately, this seemingly small issue could be what prevents injury to a worker.
Mastering the learning curve
If we want to eliminate the smallest of errors, we must first understand the way humans learn and acquire new skills. When we learn a new skill or a task, we start from the basics and move on to the most difficult part and finish off by perfecting the smallest details.
The first step in learning is getting the hang of a task. In gymnastics this could be learning a new balance, whereas in a workplace this could be learning to use new machinery. After understanding the basics, the second step for the gymnast would be to get their leg higher, and for the worker it could be to learn the machine’s safety features. After getting their leg high enough with good balance, the gymnast could start paying attention to the position of the arms and the length of the balance. Equally, a worker could learn to lift heavier materials safely.
What this example demonstrates is that we need to know the basics before we can move on to learn something more challenging. In gymnastics, you require a strong foundation with training in ballet, dance, running, core, flexibility and many other areas. Once these skills have been acquired, we can move on to perfect the aesthetics. In safety, we must understand that in order to perform a task in a safe way, we need to know the task well enough. There is no space for shortcuts.
We will forget
In both sports and at work we have training periods that require us to take in lot of new information, most of which we end up forgetting after a few days. However, once time goes by and we practice and routinize the skills, our performance level goes up. Nevertheless, after a while our ability to memorize more information slows down.
It is unfortunate that even after hundreds of hours of practice, we end up repeating the same old (sometimes very simple) mistakes. This is a sobering reminder that we are not machines. In a scenario (that is adaptable to any workplace) where a gymnast has practiced a routine for 7 months, he or she will almost always go back to repeating some of the old “bad habits”. Hence, the goal in gymnastics, as well as in safety, is to replace these old habits with better ones, and build on existing skills. It’s like constructing an office block; you cannot place the roof on the top if the support columns are missing.
So, it is important that bad habits are discouraged. This should be done at the training stage, since it is more difficult and time-consuming to alter the way we do things once learnt than to learn something new. Nevertheless, bad habits do arise – often as a side effect of a day-to-day routine (trust in our skills increases when repeating the same tasks on a daily basis) - and we should therefore know how to replace them.
Here are some steps that can help eliminate bad habits in a workplace:
• Make the people conscious about a bad habit
• Replace the habit by teaching a new way of doing it
• Ensure that the new way is repeated several times
• Give positive feedback when the change is successful
• Do not leave it there – make sure that the changes have not been forgotten!
How to improve safety performance? - with marginal gains?
Once we have reached an advanced level, in gymnastics or in work tasks, it becomes more challenging to find and eliminate the remaining (marginal) aspects that separate us from excellence.
In safety management the ability to drill into the most granular data is highly useful. For example, when conducting a root cause analysis the aim is to find all possible, no matter how minor, causes that have contributed to the incident to take place. It is common to use tried and tested processes such as the 5 Whys. However, it is not sufficient to simply rely on mechanistic methods. It is also important that we capture the way, for example, human behavior played its part in the scenario.
But in order uncover the small, often unnoticed weaknesses, it is essential that workplaces encourage and build a proactive culture that considers various factors, even the smallest deviations, as a crucial part of incident prevention.
Successful companies utilize performance management tools to support the function.
In fact, it has been proven that having an EHS software solution in place has a direct to improved safety performance. (Professional athletes could never succeed without proper equipment and resources. The best in my sport always had the top of the range gymnastics toe shoes and the most optimized practice environment.) However, since a safe workplace requires both good process and culture, it is essential that the two support and encourage the desired safety behavior.
Therefore, just like marginal gains in cycling, and the never-ending search for mistakes in gymnastics, safety professionals should not forget that small things lead to big things (marginal gains). We should be on the constant lookout for small errors that can be replaced with new, innovative methods that contribute to a safer workplace. Looking for better ways to work should be an ongoing task, and should be encouraged company wide.
Lessons to be learned from sports
Professional sportsmen are highly versed in analyzing performance, creating strategies and eliminating errors. In aesthetic gymnastics, the best in class manage to replace old mistakes and perfect all the tiny, hardly visible movements that contribute to the overall performance. The best in class are great at both detecting the errors and also deploying methods that allow them to grow out of the undesirable routine and replace it with the correct way. The British cycling team did exactly this. They worked hard to find every small variable and made them work to the benefit of the team.
The same can be true for achieving best in class workplace safety methods.
So, what are the takeaways for safety professionals?
• Set goals, but don’t forget about the system
• Marginal gains make a big difference
• Good leadership and communication is required
• Never stop looking for the smallest mistakes
• Support your processes with relevant tools
• Learning is like building an office block
• Encourage detail-oriented safety behavior
• Don’t forget that humans forget
• If a process doesn’t work, find out why, and change it
Just like the British cycling team (Team Sky), workplaces can pursue better safety performance by identifying and eliminating small errors, and by doing this, use the opportunity for “marginal gains”. With proactive management and leadership, combined with good system and tools, workplaces can better their safety performance in a sustainable way.
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