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February 10, 2015

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Getting behind the numbers: a different approach to safety reporting

By Andrew Petrie

It’s very unusual nowadays to see an organisation safety department that does not have a large team of people dedicated to gathering numbers and producing reports with pages and pages of data and graphs. As safety has grown in importance over recent years it has rightly made its way up an organisation’s agenda and will often be the first item in the company’s monthly report executive meetings.

Accompanying this rise in prominence the need for safety data has also grown to the point that collection and management of safety data has now taken on a life of its own. I am not saying that this is a bad thing, but where this breaks down is that reporting pages of safety data is meaningless unless you’re also passing over real information to the management team. Most executive managers are extremely busy and only have limited time and mental processing capacity to deal with any topic. They really do want to take safety seriously but they need short concise pieces of information not pages of data and graphs.

Time at executive meetings is also very short, you need to focus the time you have on the issues that need to be resolved. As the safety input you need to lead the discussion on safety, not let the meeting get distracted discussing minor incidents. That’s not the role of an executive meeting.

There is a common rule for passing on information and that is people can only process and remember ten pieces of information at any one time. Why not use that approach to change the way you produce safety reports and lead management meetings?

Instead of presenting the pages of data, change the focus of your report to present up to ten pieces of information. I am not saying ditch the data all together, have it in an appendix or available to be presented if required, but move the focus away from numbers and graphs to relevant information and what needs to be done about it. Here are some examples of issues you could discuss in the monthly report and meeting.

  • What are the trends, are we improving or getting worse?
  • What significant actions are overdue or need executive intervention to get prioritised?
  • Have our initiatives been working, what needs to be done to make them better?
  • What lessons have we learned and what needs to be done to share them?
  • Are there any emerging issues or threats that they need to be aware of?
  • What has analysis of the data shown, are there any systematic failures behind the numbers?

Remember at all times who the audience is and what you want from them. There are two basic questions to ask yourself when considering what to include in your ten items. Firstly, do they really need to know this information and secondly, do I need them to take some action to address an issue. If it passes either of these tests then add it to your report, if not leave it out.

On some occasions they will ask to see some additional data, and if so then it’s fine to include that in the next month’s report, just note that it was in response to a specific request and remember to take it out the following month. Reports will grow and grow with information over time and if no one can remember who requested it or why, once it has fulfilled its purpose, take it out.

It’s very easy to fall into the trap of providing lots of pieces of information to show what a great job you are doing, and in doing so you are effectively wasting important management time. The executive management team will appreciate you giving then short concise pieces of information in the long term and see you as being much more effective than someone who just provides pages of data.

Andrew Petrie is head of safety and assurance at Network Rail Consulting

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9 years ago

Hi Andrew, Do you have any monitoring tools and would you be willing to share those. I have read your blog and I totally agree. It is important to remember why we do monitoring and at this point however have to say that a lot of times managers unfortunately do it just for the sake of having it and not really wanting to improve if reasonable suggestions were submitted that would make the work process slower or cost in any other way. Now having said this of course, I mean suggestions that have gone through the cost-benefit stages, where even… Read more »