Stages of evolution between monkey and manTo know where you’re going it helps to know where you are (and where you’ve been). That’s the idea behind a culture assessment. Yet there’s more to measuring cultural maturity than meets the eye, and without expert guidance you might stumble into some common pitfalls along the way.

Here’s a helpful introduction to three of the main reasons why you might want to benchmark your safety culture and what to watch out for.

Reason 1: To find out how you’re doing externally

Some organisations find it useful to compare the maturity of their safety culture with other external organisations, often operating in the same industry sector. This is entirely understandable, after all, why wouldn’t you want to see how you’re doing in your industry league table?

Unsurprisingly this can be difficult to arrange and needs comparison with a wide portfolio of benchmarked culture assessments (the kind only an experienced culture change consultancy has…) to facilitate the process.

The major consideration is to benchmark yourselves against the best in the sector. Some industry sectors are notorious for featuring lots of organisations with weak safety cultures so benchmarking against the average in these sectors is a recipe for aiming for mediocrity.

Aim for the best examples in your sector or, failing that, look outside your industry sector.

Reason 2: To find out how you’re doing internally

A site-by-site culture assessment and associated benchmarking within your organisation will let you know how you’re doing compared with your peers. Of course this implies two fairly obvious requirements:

  • If you carry out the assessment using your own staff then it’s highly likely that the end result will be affected, because people may well respond with what they think the assessor wants to hear. So an impartial third-party is often required to carry out the culture assessment and benchmark, especially if focus groups are involved.
  • Assuming you choose an external provider, the same organisation has to be used to gauge each site according to a rigorous, well-documented and reproducible system.

If the result is favourable compared with other parts of your organisation the temptation might well be to relax and assume your mission is accomplished. Beware though: this attitude means any ambition to improve will be stifled until the other areas of the organisation catch up.

Reason 3: To find out how to improve

The most important reason to benchmark the maturity of your safety culture is to establish how to improve from where you are. Any worthwhile benchmark must provide a clear definition of the different levels of maturity in safety culture and what’s required to meet the criteria of each level.

Most models feature five levels (like in the primate/man scale table) with brief descriptors. Behind these brief descriptors should lie detailed descriptions of the attitudes and behaviours that prevail at each of the five levels subdivided by director, manager, supervisor and employee. The second table shows supervisor behaviour and beliefs about challenging unsafe behaviour.

Unfocused Reactive Calculative Proactive Learning
Culture Key Area Behaviour and Beliefs
Challenging unsafe behaviour Only respond to safety procedure breaches that amount to gross risk taking. Are inconsistent in how they enforce safety rules. Will challenge their teams directly for not following procedures. Are intolerant of any violation from the standard procedures and expect teams to be challenging each other. Teams are able to police themselves and challenge anyone who jeopardises the standards.

A good cultural maturity benchmark will produce a road map for improvement and clearly indicate what’s required to move to the next level of maturity. The JOMC approach was developed in partnership with several blue chip organisations and shows how a robust culture assessment can be coupled with a rigorous benchmarking process.