Dakota Electric Association

Dakota Electric Association (DEA) has always had a reputation of being serious about safety. Well over 30 years ago, some key supervisors in operations created a safety mindset that has been around ever since: comply with the safety rules.

When Kevin Fowler, DEA’s Manager of Safety Services, took over the top safety role in the organization 20 years ago, he tried to maintain those strict rules and level of compliance, but people were still getting hurt. DEA experienced an average of 30 recordable injuries every year.

“I had to take a long hard look at our approach. Having all the right rules and the best equipment was not enough,” said Fowler. “Having been with DEA my entire, 35-year, career, even I had fallen into the ‘this is the way it’s always been done’ mentality.”

Over a ten-year time span, three simple tools were used to drop recordable injuries to the lowest number DEA had seen; corporate-wide awareness campaigns, post incident follow-up process and getting senior management involved in safety.

However, Fowler knew awareness and incident follow-up were not enough to sustain safety at DEA forever. As he started looking for new methods to take DEA to the next level in safety, he received a phone call from a Caterpillar Safety Services representative. The discussion that ensued convinced Fowler to take a leap of faith and start on a journey to zero-incident performance by administering the Safety Perception Survey (SPS).

Solution: Starting with the Safety Perception Survey

The Safety Perception Survey conducted by Caterpillar Safety Services is a statistically validated tool that measures employee attitudes about safety. The results are used to establish the baseline needed to begin improving safety culture.

After every employee at DEA completed the survey, a Caterpillar Safety Services consultant presented the results to senior management in an SPS Report-Out meeting. Areas of strength and opportunities for improvement were identified and the consultant explained how the employee feedback could be leveraged in culture change efforts.

At that meeting, Fowler became enthusiastic about the path DEA was about to take, and he wasn’t alone.

Support for enhancing safety culture immediately began to permeate DEA. Fowler found advocates in areas of the business he never expected to take an interest in day-to-day safety issues.

“One of our senior management participants said he had never been as fully engaged in an eight-hour meeting as he was at the SPS Report Out,” Fowler said. “I used to think I didn’t need support from above, but I do, and it’s great to see people who had little safety exposure in their workgroup now getting involved and taking ownership in safety management.”

The survey results showed the DEA workforce was ripe for employee engagement in safety. Employees throughout the organization indicated strong interest in being involved in developing solutions to the problems they know best, and they wanted to be recognized for positive actions that create a safer workplace.

Caterpillar Safety Services encouraged DEA to turn its employees’ areas of concern into goals for improvement. Through a Rapid Improvement Workshop, the employees and managers closest to the organization’s safety reality would become the leaders of positive change.

At first, the rapid improvement method was a concept Fowler had difficulty grasping; a five-day workshop during which a process is developed from start to finish by a small group of employees focused on a very specific topic. But having been pleased with the chance he took on the SPS, Fowler convinced himself, then his boss, to take another leap of faith.

“I told my boss, ‘You just have to trust me, not really knowing myself if it would work,” Fowler said.

To start the Kaizen process, five team members from different areas of the company, with different personalities, and different attitudes about safety joined the Kaizen team. The next week took them on an incredible journey that resulted in a very specific method of communication on a monthly basis between supervisors and employees about safety related problems or concerns in their respective areas. This process comes with accountabilities at all levels, including measurement systems and recognition.

Throughout the week, excitement within the employee-driven team became visible. The team members worked diligently to create accountabilities for all levels of the company from employee to the executive board. The team built a measurement system, developed the concept for the reporting system, built a timeline and implementation plan, and put it all into a presentation form, including a demonstration of the process working. Team members were engaged and committed, even changing work and personal schedules in order to be involved in the entire process.

“This team was open to believing in change, had an experienced consultant to lead them with the right training, tools and processes, and worked on a safety topic that was relevant to everyone involved,” Fowler said. “Having all of those aspects really allowed us to take our first big step in Achieving Cultural Transformation (ACT), the name of our new self-built safety engagement process.”

Results: Driving measureable, visible culture change

Following the Rapid Improvement Workshop, 22 ACT teams representing five DEA divisions kick-started numerous safety improvements throughout the organization, each task identified and completed by the employees directly impacted by the issue.

“As the manager of safety, when I came into this job, I ended up taking safety from the employees because I took the responsibility to correct or improve anything and everything in the safety area.” Fowler explains, “The survey results showed employees wanted safety back; they wanted to be involved and make decisions, so this is definitely a step in the right direction for our safety culture.”

Fowler and the teams track their progress through an action item matrix, which lists and prioritizes goals for safety improvement. When employees report potential hazards, action items are added to the list and designated as high, medium, or low-risk. High-risk issues are monitored by a department vice president.

Safety isn’t only on every meeting agenda at DEA, it has become a regular topic of conversation integrated into daily processes. In a five-month period of 2011, the organization recorded more than 800 employee-supervisor safety engagements.

“Even if we had only 1 percent of those engagements result in safety improvements, that’s eight improvements we wouldn’t have otherwise had,” Fowler said.

Each ACT team strives to hold four meetings each year. In 2011, every team met or exceeded the meeting goal. In the first six months of 2012, the teams recorded 60 percent progress toward the annual goal.

Throughout DEA, cultural transformation is underway and success is breeding success. Fowler’s anxieties over the commitment to elevating safety to the next level have been replaced with confidence that his team is on the path to achieving world-class safety performance.


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