"What do you want me to do—save money or save lives? You can't have it both ways." This was said by a frustrated manager who felt whipsawed by these competing values. Of course he knew the company motto, "Safety comes first," but he also knew they weren't in business to be safe but to build product.
Many organizations face this challenge: they value safety, but maintaining a safe workplace often provides little strategic advantage. It's easy to find ROI reasons to fund productivity, quality and efficiency, but safety is a cost center. Of course, there are business reasons for maintaining a safe workplace. Injuries are costly, and in some industries, a poor safety record can disqualify a company from new bids and contracts. But in most organizations, workplace safety is more about values than it is about business.
My research team spent the last several years studying organizations that have "broken the code" on safety—companies that have extraordinary safety records—and we have an amazing discovery to report. First a bit of background.
We were working with Mike Wildfong, general manager at TI Automotive, a firm with an exceptional safety record. Mike and his team maintain an obsessive focus on keeping people safe, and we asked him why. Here's how he explained it, "I use safety as the leading edge of accountability. We need accountability to achieve the quality, productivity and cost targets we set, but I start with safety. If I can't achieve accountability around safety, then I can't achieve accountability around anything."
Mike and the other safety-focused executives we studied use safety as an accountability incubator. They build a culture of accountability where everyone holds everyone accountable for safe practices. The brilliant leap they made is that once they achieved this level of accountability around safety, they could employ it to improve quality, productivity, cost control, customer service, etc.
So, Mike and his peers deny there's a tradeoff between saving money and saving lives. They argue for the reverse. They believe managers who hold people accountable succeed at everything—safety, quality, productivity, etc. And likewise, managers who don't hold people accountable fail at everything.