Clients / Case Studies

Leadership Alignment for a New Culture of Safety

A large, Federal natural-resource agency contracted Dialogos to help them determine the underlying causes of Wildland Fire accidents and fatalities, and to facilitate a large-scale process for improving safety performance. Interviews of more than 500 employees and stakeholders revealed the significant factors contributing to these undesirable outcomes. From these interviews, Dialogoss created a diagnostic map of the safety system that highlighted several potential high-leverage opportunities to transform the safety culture of the Agency, and worked with a core team of senior leaders to create two strategic intervention plans to maximize these opportunities.

Overview

In 2006, Dialogos was contracted to help determine the underlying causes of Wildland Fire accidents and fatalities, and to facilitate a large-scale process for improving safety performance at a large, Federal natural-resource agency. Interviews of more than 500 employees and stakeholders revealed the significant factors contributing to these undesirable outcomes. From these interviews, we created a diagnostic map of the safety system that highlighted eight potential high-leverage opportunities to transform the safety culture of the agency. The senior team decided to focus on two of the eight: increasing leadership alignment nationally and engaging the Fire Community around issues of communication and management practices that influence safety. Dialogos worked with a core team of senior leaders to create two strategic intervention plans to maximize these opportunities.
 

Challenge

Among the historic strengths of this governmental Agency was its decentralized structurewhich, while a benefit, also limited leadership alignment and coherence. With no coherent national leadership group making effective strategic decisions, the Agency’s ability to implement policy on a national level was limited. The challenge was to preserve the historic strength of decentralization, while enhancing national leadership alignment and coherence.
 

Intervention

Dialogos initially helped to forge a core leadership team that could focus on a limited set of strategic issues. It also began working with multiple regional leadership teams to clarify and develop their capacity, team alignment, and strategic focus. 

This increasing leadership alignment has catalyzed two system-wide change interventions: First, a fundamental shift in strategy for Wildland Forest Fire Fighting, including a move to a risk management-based approach. Working with a select team from within the Wildland Fire Community, we designed and delivered workshops that helped to shift the decades-long strategy of massive response to Wildland Fires by integrating technical risk model-generated solutions and collaborative decision-making. 

The second shift was an agency-wide effort to transform the safety culture. The Agency’s 30 most senior leadersthe National Leadership Council (NLC)went on “Learning Journeys” to organizations that are recognized safety leaders; synthesized their learning from those visits; and then articulated a core intention along with five new practices, for safety within in the agency. Collaborating with a small group of senior executives and internal safety experts, we developed an intervention to train 1,800 senior and middle leaders, as well as a cross-sectional team of “catalysts,” who then engaged all 33,000 Agency employees in one-day sessions over the next four months. These engagement sessions reinforced the perception of safety as a core value rather than as a “program,” introduced new practices and tools for risk management and learning, and gathered input and feedback from employeesall of which led to a next round of engagement the following year.

The second round of sessions focused on unit-level work improvement projects, which were locally conceived, planned, and implemented to address work/safety issues. By year’s end, approximately 2,000 of these locally-driven projects were underway or completed, and interactively displayed on Google maps.  

This entire intervention was possible through the formation of a stable collective leadership group, the NLC, capable of stewarding a process of long-term, complex system change and leading the agency on a trajectory towards zero Wildland Fire fatalities.
 

Results

Agency leadership has been able to concentrate on key strategic issues and look at new ways of managing risk and exposure. They are beginning to shift the attitude of safety as a “program” to one of safety as a core value. A clear vision for the future is emerging, and the Forest Service is laying the groundwork for a genuine and lasting change in the culture of safety. 

Overall outcomes for this series of interventions include:

  • A leadership core that functions as an integrated, coherent team and serves as model for the behavior of all other senior leadership teams in the Agency
  • Regional leadership teams are improving their ability to manage change in a climate of increasing uncertainty
  • A defined and transparent process for collectively making critical short- and long-term strategic choices at multiple leadership levels 
  • A new model for leaders to consistently engage their employees around emerging issues, allowing information to flow in all directions, and increasing capacity for organization-wide learning and continuous safety improvements
  • Strategic investments in safety nationally, including upgrades to radio systems, a national standard for check-in/check-out procedures, and deployment of 6,500 emergency locator devices
  • Development of a “safety dashboard” to graphically display critical information, and broadcast local and national improvements to safety
  • A national protocol for welcoming new and seasonal employees into the Agency and promoting the core value of safety as a fundamental element of working there