Why Safety Differently is like outstanding customer service

Over the last month have I become more familiar with the concepts of Safety I and Safety Differently and I must admit that after watching several of Professor Sidney Dekker’s videos I am hooked. What has really grabbed me is the emphasis on people providing solutions, with autonomy and engagement in what happens, and building on success rather than dwelling upon failure.

For over 20 years I worked for John Lewis and Partners (JLP), a business founded on the principles of co-ownership and putting its staff (known as Partners) at the heart of its business model. In short, the Partners who work for the JLP were an integral part of the success (or failure) of this retailer. So it is no surprise that the ideas presented by Prof Dekker have really resonated with me.

However, even in the unique business environment of co-ownership there was a time when the rules of hierarchy and control came into play, none more so than at the Customer Service Desk (CSD) in a Waitrose store.

Let me give you an example. A customer returns a corked bottle of wine. He explains to the Partner on the CSD why he is returning the wine. The Partner then calls for the Store Manager, and the reason for the customer returning the wine is repeated by either the customer, or Partner, or even both. The Store Manager then agrees to compensate the customer in some way and authorises that that is the appropriate course of action.

That might be the end of the scenario, but would this really be described as a successful outcome? Was the customer served with flair? Was he made to feel ‘special’? Was it an example of great service?

Not really. They’ve been kept waiting to speak to the Store Manager. They’ve had to repeat themselves several times. They’ve probably felt like there was an element of distrust in them returning the item in the first place. All for the cost of an inexpensive bottle of wine.

And what about the Partner: was that a great experience for them?

Not really. They’ve not felt valued as being capable of dealing with the customer themselves. The ‘problem’ is escalated for a manager to confirm the correct course of action. Ironically this was something that the Partner was going do to all along, but never had the chance. They face this sort of scenario, day-in, day-out. They know what they are doing.

As part of the IOSH Lexicon in IOSH Magazine (S is for Safety II) Bridget Leathley succinctly outlines the distinctions between Safety I, Safety II, and Safety Differently. She describes Safety I as “traditional thinking (where) we define safety as the condition where nothing goes wrong” and as an “idea that following procedures correctly will always lead to the right result”.

Upon reflection, if I were to liken the above customer service scenario to a safety concept, this would be Safety I. As Prof Dekker would describe it, people just need to do as they are told (Safety Differently Lecture). However, in this case, while errors may be controlled (e.g. customer dishonesty or refunds being too generous), ultimately (in my opinion) it is hardly a satisfying and engaging way of working and achieving results.

To its credit, Waitrose recognised that this was the case several years ago. The retailer overhauled the way that Partners interacted with their customers. Barriers and hierarchal processes were removed and staff now had ‘permission’ to do what felt right. Partner behaviour and the ultimate outcome were dictated by the setting, not by the rules.

No managers needed to be called. Partners had the flexibility to do what was appropriate, according to the situation. They could arrange refunds. They could replace items. They could open packets of products to taste with customers and even give things away!

The results from doing this were clear. There were happy customers, who would no doubt shop with you again. They would tell their friends what a great experience they had. Positive feedback and service measures climbed, from previously plateauing or falling results.

Ultimately there were happy Partners who were fully engaged with the process, had autonomy in the decision-making and were trusted to do the right thing.

That’s why I draw the comparison between outstanding customer service and Safety Differently: a system of governance which is people-orientated and which focuses on empowerment, autonomy and trust. Very much like the Partner on the CSD, people create great results through practice and by the fact that they are doing that type of work every day. They are the experts in doing this type of work, not necessarily the manager who is called to make the final decision. So doesn’t it make sense in the OSH world to focus on and accelerate levels of worker engagement?

I once worked with an experienced store manager from whom I learned a great deal. One of his favourite sayings was (to paraphrase) ‘concentrate on what you do well…and do it more often’. This resonated strongly with me and I am guilty of quoting this on the odd occasion myself during appraisals and mentoring sessions!

Safety Differently advocates that rather than looking at where things go wrong, the focus should be on ‘normal work’ or, in my interpretation, doing what we do well every day and building on it. My manager was quite clearly thinking along the lines of running a supermarket and delivering great customer service, but the opportunities for empowerment and focusing on what we do well also came into play from a safety perspective.

The day-to-day running of a store of 36,000sq ft always presented its challenges. There were hazards which, as a manager, you needed to be mindful of and be alert to. You could argue that it wasn’t anything close to Safety Differently that prevented accidents from happening. Rather, it was just regular training that reminded Partners of their responsibilities, and in that sense was no different to any other retailer.

However, I would disagree. I don’t believe that you can successfully manage a large supermarket with a large customer footfall without having the support of engaged staff. Indeed, the trust to‘do the right thing’ was frequently highlighted during contractor visits which often operated on a 24-hour basis. A manager cannot be there every hour of the day to tell people what to do. You rely heavily on Partners and your contractor to work together and agree the most appropriate course of action. The nature of retail is large trading-windows, so it makes an incredible difference to have people around you whose decision making is dictated by the setting and who

share a collective responsibility for safety. They are not waiting for a manager to tell them what to do.

Just to be clear. I am not advocating the end of Safety I. Rules and procedures are vital within the food industry, as they are elsewhere. I will also openly admit that I still have a lot to learn about Safety Differently and what potential it could unlock.

However, I have worked for a business which, when it was created, was fundamentally ahead of its time. It placed the wellbeing and empowerment of its employees at the centre of everything it did. I have played a role in its success and felt valued for my contribution.

I am a strong advocate of co-ownership and I think the concept of Safety Differently might be just what we need more of if we are to find different ways of reducing accidents and keeping people safe.


    1. Andrew Downie Post author Reply

      Hi Jurgen. Thank you for taking the time to comment and read my article. I will take a look at your website. Thanks, Andrew

  1. Suzanne Jackson Reply

    “So doesn’t it make sense in the OSH world to focus on and accelerate levels of worker engagement?”

    Yes, but the reality is the value proposition for safety is “loss control”. Worker engagement in some industries has been suppressed so much that the journey to engagement will take many years and probably a change in senior management. And much of the worker engagement is theatre only, real power to make change staying with senior management, never with a health & safety committee or OSH department. The value proposition of OSH shapes how safety works in an organization: if your customer demands having a safety certification, you will obtain one; if the regulator has you on their radar, you will comply. If you are the CEO and demand no more SIF’s, your management team will be enforcing safety rules & procedures and your safety officer will be doing 4 hour inductions.

  2. Andrew Downie Post author Reply

    Hi Suzanne. Thank you for commenting. The JLP didn’t fully transistion to an employee-ownership set-up until 1950…and John Spedan Lewis started thinking about it from about 1909. So it took him a while too! I think your observations are valid, the culture of an organisation is set by the CEO, but I still think there are opportunities for the lower ranks of management and the workers themselves to drive improvements and cultural change in small ways.

  3. Luciana Muratori Reply

    Wow, it must have been an amazing experience to work at John Lewis and Partners. It is refreshing to know that there are places like that. I particularly think that all business owners and managers out there should put themselves in their clients shoes instead of following textbooks or even doing what their predecessor did. Too many people are too lazy to think for themselves and offer suggestions on how to improve their roles and too many bosses are too self-centered to accept these suggestions when they are put to them. This leaves us with terrible customer service and lack of a common sense approach. Great article. Thank you!

    1. Andrew Downie Post author Reply

      Thank you for reading Luciana. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it. I loved it when there was freedom to really interact with our customers and you didnt need permission to give great service. For me this was a key differentiating factor between JLP and its retail rivals.

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