Every industry and every business has an established culture. Business culture is much like any other societal culture. In some cases the culture is very good. In most cases though, they have efficiency issues. In a business culture, these issues can require employees to work harder than needed to accomplish their goals. If these issues are modified appropriately, they can improve the overall efficiency of the company.

Altering an established business culture can be difficult if people are set in their ways and fail to recognize that inefficiencies exist. In almost all cases, the current culture has taken many years to develop, and as a result will be difficult to change. After all, the established processes have gotten the job done for some time. These processes often involve workarounds that were put in place by members of the culture to deal with the issues they experience. While these workarounds contribute to the final product, they are likely creating inefficiencies. Many people can’t, or won’t, slow down to make the necessary changes, as they feel the spare time to address the inefficiencies doesn’t exist.

Today’s workplace environments involve getting more done with fewer people and resources. Consumers are looking to their product and service suppliers for lower prices, so there is little ability to pass increased input costs on to them. This means that one of the only ways to increase profit is to increase efficiency.

Getting everyone working toward the same goal is vital. Photo: ISA

Getting everyone working toward the same goal is vital. Photo: ISA

The role of safety in business efficiency

As consumer expectations increase, competition between businesses also increases. For tree care companies, this means higher standards for safety programs. Accidents are costly and result in significant work delays. Accidents are also a heavy drain on the bottom line. This typically means businesses and employees need to crank out more work to make up for the losses.

As anyone involved in changing a business culture knows, it can be challenging to alter existing practices. Since most employees feel they are already working at warp speed, they can’t imagine taking on even one more thing. This is true even if the “thing” you’re offering will improve efficiency. If an employee has been getting their job done without that improvement for years, how does an agent of change create buy-in?

For these reasons, implementing change with the least amount of interruption to the current staff is important. At a minimum, getting everyone working toward the same goal is vital. Encourage people to work smarter, not harder. Most change requires people to slow down and understand how their actions are affecting the team or business. Over time, this slowdown will result in better planning and well-executed work.

The objectives are to get all employees involved in the effort, and for them to understand why the changes are being made. Small and incremental steps can create momentum. Once momentum is created, it’s difficult to stop.

A simple analogy is the whirlpool you can create in a small backyard pool. Several people move around the pool in the same direction, and eventually you see the water circling with everyone. If one person turns around and tries to walk in the opposite direction, it’s nearly impossible. They will likely fall back into the flow with the rest of the group. Momentum has been created. This rings true in the work environment as well.

The staff of Kramer Tree Specialists, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. Photo: ISA

The staff of Kramer Tree Specialists, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. Photo: ISA

Cost of change

Culture change comes with an initial cost. The first step involves designating a person or team to evaluate the issues and develop the necessary improvements. Utilizing employees from within the organization may make it easier to create employee buy-in. If an outside individual is requested to facilitate this shift, ensure they understand and respect your established culture.

To develop safety culture change, begin with simple adjustments. It’s possible that you’ll notice your company is not in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards in a few areas. The longer and deeper the assessment period, the more inefficiencies will become evident.

For example, sturdy plastic gas cans with no-drip spouts are out of compliance with OSHA standards in the U.S. No one expects that they’ll be replaced in one day with the OSHA-approved metal cans at $130 a unit. Replacing all the cans may be economically unfeasible, and there will most likely be other products or processes that are out of compliance and need an investment of resources. Start by replacing dented or repaired gas cans, and then commit to buying two new cans every month. The key is to maintain a balanced and sustainable approach. Continue to identify and prioritize issues that are causing inefficiencies or noncompliance.

Staying in touch

One of the most basic ways to implement a culture of safety is to begin weekly safety discussions with staff. Topics at these meetings should stay at a broad enough level that everyone is able to participate. Introduce open-ended questions to start a conversation, or review safety issues from the previous week. There is no strict amount of time that should be dedicated to safety meetings, but between 15 minutes and an hour is reasonable. Maintain sign-in sheets, and make sure everyone has an opportunity to get involved. This ensures everyone understands that safety is important to the company.

Track every incident, no matter how small. While damaging a customer’s flowerpot may seem somewhat insignificant, what is the actual bottom line cost? A manger must go to the store to purchase a new flowerpot, and then go to the customer’s house to replace it. These costs must figure into the total incident cost. The underlying cause of the incident must also be determined, and the behaviors responsible changed in order to reduce the likelihood of similar incidents in the future. Experiencing an incident and ignoring the cause will expose the company to repeated incidents. By requiring the responsible manger to write up a report for each incident, they eventually look to employees for performance improvement. This is especially true if the reports are shared with their peers.

Another important avenue for implementing change can be creating a monthly safety task force. This is typically a group of managers or employees who get together for one hour every month. Start simple by reviewing the topics discussed at the weekly safety meetings, or answering any questions that arose. Plan to discuss the incidents the company has experienced over the past month. This is a good opportunity to help everyone understand how necessary the change is. Work to get them involved in identifying the problems and offering their potential solutions. Gently challenge managers to improve on the problem areas that are raised by the group.

Does the company issue standard basic safety equipment to all employees? What are the company’s expectations as far as personal protective equipment (PPE)? Do all employees wear the same attire on a job site? Building consistent PPE and uniform expectations for the whole staff sends a message to customers that the business is efficient and safety-oriented. A simple one-page policy can establish this requirement.

Is there an open line of communication between the office and the fieldworkers? Is there an employee who regularly visits job sites to interact with fieldworkers? Fieldworkers have many good ideas for solving issues that arise; establishing a clear process to communicate their solutions to management is one key to successfully implementing improvements. Enlisting someone to work with them rather than against them will help ensure there is buy-in from all staff. If an employee raises a simple issue, act to resolve it quickly. Nothing builds support from employees better than swift, positive change.

Most companies quickly recognize employee-caused problems, and quickly discipline the individual(s). But what has been done to recognize them for performing well? Recognition can have a favorable impact. This recognition may include something as simple as a form letter signed by the boss or manager along with a $20 gas card. Employees will appreciate authentic praise for things they have been doing well, and it will encourage them to continue to strive for improvement. As the old proverb goes, “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Conclusion

When working to change a culture, it’s important to enter the situation with an open mind. Not every idea for improvement will be a good one. Start small and work toward bigger, more comprehensive change. It’s critical to achieve small successes and develop an alliance with the team. When employees recognize that the boss is trying to help them, they will likely support the small changes.

It’s understandable that some companies, especially smaller ones, might not have the resources to hire someone focused solely on performance improvement. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Many companies actively encourage and sustain a culture of safety. Find out what other companies in the industry are doing, and implement some of their practices or processes.

It’s easy to get frustrated and think that progress is happening too slowly. Quietly celebrate even the smallest successes and keep driving toward the long-term goals. Over time, the company will earn a reputation as a safe and professional place to work and do business with, and enjoy greater efficiency.