June 24, 2021 | Blog

Thinking Outside of the Box When it Comes to Safety

safety challenges
What does it really mean to think outside of the box? It’s a phrase that’s thrown around so often, its meaning has probably been watered down over time. Sure, it means thinking in a creative way. But it’s not just about coming up with that original idea. It’s about understanding the box and how it has limited your thinking in the first place. When we’re in the box, we’re accepting the status quo and all its limitations. We’re following the rules or norms as they’ve always been. It’s just the way it is.

EHS professionals can turn Safety into an advantage for their company if they don’t let themselves get boxed into a narrow view of their role. Limiting your perspective to just supporting and enforcing regulatory compliance to ensure the safety of the worker and the workplace may preclude you from finding new solutions to business problems. Opportunities where the right investment in safety can impact the organization in more ways than just reducing TRR or cost of incidents. A different way of thinking to find solutions that can improve product quality, bolster company reputation, drive more business through customer acquisition and retention. 

Safety for safety’s sake is the box EHS leaders often put themselves in. It’s a way of thinking based on what you know – and then limiting your approach to solving problems based on your biases. Safety doesn’t have to be just the right thing to do. It can also be the right thing to do for business. And, thinking outside of the box can change the very nature of how safety is viewed and supported within your organization.

So how do you take those steps, break from tradition, and challenge yourself to think outside the boundaries of the role as you’ve always seen it? The following are six ways to change up how you think about and solve safety-related challenges in your organization: 

1. Simplify the problem.

So often, the biggest challenges, when peeled back to the basic elements, seem much more addressable. While it may be tempting to jump right to a solution, when you look at a problem from its broken-down components, you’re more likely to identify underlying causes, catch small problems before they become big, and uncover new pathways to resolve the problem.

2. Imagine what you would do differently if you were starting from scratch.

If you weren’t starting from a program that’s been in place since before you joined the organization. Or that you put in place two years ago after a lot of careful analysis. Imagine if you were starting over today. What would you do differently?

3. Ask why.

Making sure employees understand the “why” of Safety – why they are asked to follow certain protocols – is a familiar best practice. But what about asking the same question about the protocols you’ve developed. Why is a program run a certain way? Why are certain checks in place? Use the 5 Whys technique – drilling down to the core rationale behind a program by asking “why” five times – to uncover new or overlooked alternatives that might offer better results.

4. Try a new perspective.

When an issue arises, don’t just look for input from your team, and look beyond getting input from the workers who are impacted. Look to other leaders in the organization – including Finance, Operations, and HR – to challenge assumptions.

5. Work backwards.

Start by imagining that a problem is already solved, and then start working backwards to map out all of the steps and decisions that lead to the situation you’re in today. Eventually, you’ll find a solution to the problem but maybe not the same one you would have expected. Working backwards forces you to more carefully explore the implications of each decision, giving you more clarity along the way.

6. Study another industry.

This doesn’t mean studying the Safety function in Construction if you’re in Utilities. It means, exercising your thinking skills by studying what others have done in industries completely unrelated to your own, even in other disciplines. How are others innovating to solve their problems – and what can be adapted for your own responsibilities? By focusing on areas outside of your comfort zone, the things you already know, you’ll bring fresh, innovative thinking back to your role and your organization. 

To see how one Safety leader is applying some outside-of-the-box thinking to his organization and turning Safety into a competitive advantage, check out the No Accident podcast with Torrey Garrison, VP of EHS and Leadership Development at Performance Contractors.

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