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Culture Eats Programs for Breakfast

I was part of a recent training session during which a gentleman from a petroleum refinery made the following statement: “Our culture will eat any program you have for breakfast.” That was such a spot-on comment.

If we believe that one more program is going to fix our organizational safety and efficiency problems, we might be sadly mistaken. We waste far too much time and money on programs to correct specific problems rather than looking more broadly at culture and behavior.

A Questioning Approach
We can start to assess where we are by simply asking ourselves a series of questions: What are my company’s goals? Do I know how I contribute to those goals? How can I be more effective today than I was yesterday? Do I know what I am about to do and why I am doing it?

By asking ourselves questions, we are actually engaging our brains and allowing ourselves to pause before taking actions. As our culture shifts over time, it is common to become robotic in the process of how we approach our tasks. These mental lapses can lead to devastating outcomes.

By changing culture to focus on behavioral thought processes, we can start to eliminate multiple issues that result in negative consequences. The practice of stopping to ask questions before performing a task can become a routine pattern that mitigates mistakes. When we change and shape our culture, we are affecting habit instead of briefly replacing a behavior with a program.

Programs often come and go, and we may only remember them after we suffer a consequence. We will even say to ourselves, “I knew that program wouldn’t work.” Behavior-based safety programs suffice temporarily because that is what programs do – temporarily change behavior. If we do not instill the proper methods into our everyday work habits, we will not obtain a course correction that leads to a new culture.

We must pledge to practice our new behavioral standards every time we perform a task. We cannot only look at risk and decide to employ behavioral standards based on likelihood; we must also look at potential consequences of error when we perform incorrectly. We have to want to improve in order to actually achieve improvement.

Management Obligations
Management is obligated to practice our new methodology in behavioral standards by applying it to the decisions that they make and the systems that they provide to employees to accomplish work. Additionally, management must measure the potential threat of drift or normalized deviation from the behavioral standards through coaching and observations. Observations should focus primarily on the application of behavioral standards and their proper use, not on secondary functions of task delivery such as attitude or personality. These ancillary patterns do not typically affect the outcome and are mostly subjective.

On the topic of objectivity and subjectivity, behavioral standards provide the observer with a method of comparing actual results with stated desired patterns. We can visibly see if a person is processing information prior to taking action simply by watching them and engaging them in conversation. As the observer, we can utilize a few of the same mental tools that we are asking the performer to use.

Positive reinforcement for correct behaviors that are observed leads to a more robust and faster approach to the cultural change we seek. One of the principles of this methodology states that people achieve higher levels of performance when they receive positive reinforcement from their supervisors and peers.

The application and observation of behavioral standards – let’s call them human performance tools – create a unified approach to task completion. By teaching and observing the use of human performance tools, we can align on how work should be performed from a behavioral perspective.

The importance of alignment is hard to quantify in the proactive state, but it’s easy to see when there are negative consequences. Alignment throughout an organization has been shown to lead to increased revenue, lower costs, reduced liability and improved customer relations due to fewer mistakes.

Cautionary Message
Programs will never take the place of an established company culture. It got this way for a reason and did not happen overnight. The cautionary message here is, do not expect to quickly change culture and then give up too soon when you do not see immediate results. Programs set us up to believe that a knee-jerk reaction will result in a quick fix that ultimately eliminates our problem. The truth is that the culture will consume the program and will outlast the temporary effects.

If we focus on and change culture, we can expect to change the outcome. If we believe a program will do it, we might be buying another program very soon.

About the Author: David Bowman is CEO of Knowledge Vine Inc. He has 25 years of industrial experience gained through his work in the petrochemical, nuclear power, fossil fuel generation, and utility transmission and distribution industries. Bowman is also a subject matter expert in human performance and led those efforts for Entergy Corp. for more than 12 years before founding Knowledge Vine. He holds a bachelor’s degree in safety engineering.