“Too many good people don’t really understand what goes on in their business. They fail to get beneath the surface to find out what staff really think.”

– Claire Mann, Operations & Safety Director of Arriva Trains Wales

There’s a rich, untapped resource in every organisation with the power to both reduce incidents and unleash world-class performance. But not every company has the courage to engage frankly with staff, and learn valuable insight on how to keep people safe and productive.

Arriva Trains Wales are an exception. Instead of a strict, top-down approach to an increasing incident rate, they bravely examined what really affects people’s performance on the ground with a culture assessment. As Martyn Howells, their Occupational Safety Development Manager describes:

“Before we could fix anything, we needed to know where we stood and what staff really think.”

With support from JOMC, Arriva Trains Wales interviewed over 400 staff to find out what really affects safety and makes their business tick. And like every thorough investigation it revealed unexpected discoveries which dramatically improve how they operate.

“We wanted to get to the truth of what we were dealing with, what safety really means to people and not kid ourselves that everything’s fine.”

Train moving through countryside past a castle and lake
Arriva Trains Wales’ culture assessment was a sizeable task, involving online and paper-based surveys, one-to-one interviews with senior managers and front-line employees as well as discussion forums with groups from sites throughout Wales & Borders. The survey invited staff to rate their perception of safety culture on a scale, and the interviews and discussions gave everyone a chance to voice their honest opinions and suggestions without fear of recrimination. Results were then collated, analysed, and presented back to the company by JOMC in workshops.

The best way to engage your staff on safety

When you need to know what staff really think, your first task is to reassure them that you value their opinion and encourage honest feedback. This is especially relevant on the front-line, where you might encounter cynicism or lack of trust because of previous failed initiatives.

Gareth Ayres, a Duty Station Manager, argues that actions speak louder than words when it comes to proving your commitment to better safety:

“When it’s clear time and money’s being put into it people think ‘they must be taking it seriously’. Especially when you see senior managers getting involved.”

When the findings of your report arrive, Claire Mann has advice about how to engage people on that too:

“Be straight with people, they appreciate that. Let the results speak for themselves and ask them ‘how can we fix this?.’”

Sometimes what you discover from a culture assessment makes for uncomfortable reading. That’s why less successful organisations shy away from difficult cultural problems, not realising that safety and morale have a huge affect on their bottom line.

Yet as Martyn Howells observes, the long-term benefits outweigh any short-term discomfort:

“However negative the answers might be, the fact that it’s the truth is a positive thing. You’ve got somewhere accurate to start from.”

How to prepare for what a culture assessment reveals

“You’re opening a can of worms. Be ready to deal with the results: you need time, money, resources and energy to follow it through. And remember, it’s not just about safety, it benefits the whole business.”

As Claire points out, if after gaining honest feedback from your staff you don’t then do anything about it, that can do more harm than good because it’s an abuse of trust. Instead, involve people in the process of acting on what they’ve told you.

Arriva Trains Wales asked JOMC to handle feedback impartially with workshops and presentations, this added credibility to the culture assessment so staff respected its results. But more importantly, it compelled everyone to join in the process of coming up with solutions.

The positive effects a culture assessment has on your organisation

As well as exceeding KPIs, reducing lost-time incidents (and costly investigations) and improving operational costs, you can expect far-reaching benefits throughout your business after a successful culture assessment. Arriva Trains Wales sought extra value from their findings and delivered JOMC-led training courses to staff, specifically tailored to their needs.

“To say it’s only a few weeks after our first training sessions, we’re already seeing more motivated staff. People are talking more and staff who don’t usually get involved come forward with ideas because they know they’ll be listened to and something will get done about it.”

Claire sums up the culture assessment process in a nutshell:

“It helps you spot issues that get in the way of people doing their jobs. So when you help people fix them you get happy, more productive staff.”

Claire’s sentiments are echoed by Martyn:

“Do safety with them, not to them. Rather than give culture to people, help them be the culture change they want to see.”