The Power of a Robust Safety Culture

If you doubt the power of a robust safety culture, you’ll want to learn more about the turnaround at the Goodyear Innovation Center Manufacturing (ICM) plant in Akron, Ohio.

Over a period of about five years, the facility, also known as Goodyear’s Racing Division, turned a litany of challenges and a long list of substandard performance metrics into a finely tuned, prosperous, and continuously improving operation.

And it all started with safety.

Describing the Racing Division business as it was in the fall of 2013 when Goodyear Corporate began an initiative to redouble its continuous improvement efforts, Dave Coleman, finance business partner and continuous improvement (CI) leader, resorted to several lists. During a presentation to a group of CI practitioners at a recent AME Cleveland Consortia event, he noted that from the outside view, ICM had:

• The worst safety record of all Goodyear manufacturing businesses.
• Run through five manufacturing directors in five years.
• Delivered five years of declining volumes.
• The worst union relationships in the company.

From the inside view, he said, the traditional union-management dynamic prevailed. The proud, unengaged, resistant workforce, represented by United Steel Workers Local No. 2, seemed to have given up hope. They had no trust in or expectations of management. Noting that corporate leaders didn’t support the plant with CI consultants or capital improvements as with other facilities, the operators didn’t bother with housekeeping. They also engaged in regular fights with plant leaders, which, Coleman noted, were always about the same topic, safety, with no actions taken to address the problems. Nobody even took the time to write the concern down, he added.

Breaking the union-management logjam started with management, as it must, said Coleman. Among other actions, the foundational one was the launch of Target Zero, a safety program that put safety in the hands of the operators. The ground-breaking policy gave every employee the right – the responsibility – to stop any process that they felt was unsafe in any way. Also, every employee was authorized to submit any safety issue by writing the concern on a card and sending it to a closed-loop system where it is tracked until the unsafe situation is resolved.

Transparency of the system was critical, Coleman said. The facility created and updated a visual tracking board, so everyone could easily see and track the progress of each issue through the system.

The focus on safety had grown from the realization that improving the plant’s performance rested on changing its culture. The question, Coleman said, was “How do we get out of this mode, where individuals are weighed down by negatives. How do we change the atmosphere?” Having decided on a safety-first initiative, the leadership drilled further: What does “safety first” mean? and “What do you do to put safety first?” Through reflection, the leadership team determined that the plant needed a culture of trust and respect because, asserts Coleman, “that’s what safety is about.” He offered the following advice:

Own it: Leaders must understand that, though they may have inherited management flaws created by previous leaders, they must take responsibility for fixing them. That means, if you want the workforce to change its behavior, the leaders must first change theirs. To create a culture of trust and respect, the leadership must show confidence in and respect of the workforce—as ICM leadership did by putting safety in the hands of the workforce.

All encounters matter: Every decision you make will be “on one side of the scale or the other,” Coleman asserts. “Every action you take, every conversation you have, every policy you put in place builds the foundation for the future.” Leaders must act consistently to gain the trust of the workforce. By following through on its commitment to address every operator’s safety concerns, ICM leadership showed it trusted and respected the operators. Once the union workers saw plant leadership was committed to safety, they were willing to participate in other improvements, allowing the Racing Division to roll out other initiatives: continued, focused improvement in 2016, waste management in 2017, and productivity in 2018.

The result? By 2018, nearly every performance metric improved, with many reaching new benchmarks, earning the Racing Division accolades from within and outside the company. Coleman noted that Goodyear’s CEO, who’d previously avoided the plant, called out the Racing Division as a model plant to other manufacturing leaders in the company. Additionally, the plant earned the AME Excellence Award, from the Association of Manufacturing Excellence, whose judges heralded its closed-loop safety system and employee relations as best practices. And the union leadership? It created a video of USW employees sharing their pride in working at the Goodyear Racing Division.

Additional Information:

The AME Excellence Award information and criteria:

Honoring Excellence: Highlights from the 2018 AME Excellence Award celebrations:

United Steel Workers Union video:

About the author: Patricia Panchak, president and editor of Panchak Media, Inc., brings 25 years of researching world-class leadership strategies to help executives implement strategies at the intersection of three powerful forces—digital technologies, lean management principles, and engaged employees. While each approach can be leveraged individually to create a disruptive competitive advantage, together, they become an unbeatable force. As the former editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, Panchak is a widely recognized authority on business management and leadership issues. Through extensive research, she provides a window into the best practices of world-class organizations and provides the knowledge companies need to put the challenge of global competition in perspective. She guides companies to understand not only what’s possible but what is necessary to drive their business forward. Connect with Pat on LinkedIn:

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