What can Shamu teach us about shaping safety culture?

Recently, at the 2018 WECC Human Performance Conference, I had an enlightening conversation with Dr. Mike Legatt, CEO and Founder of ResilientGrid. We’ve known Mike for years and in addition to being just an all-around nice guy, he has a ton of experience in human performance, human factors, safety training, and safety cultures. He also has a Ph.D in clinical health psychology/neuropsychology so naturally we talked about Shamu. I’ll explain.

Training, Development, & Shamu

After the session provided by Knowledge Vine, which you can see here:

Mike approached us and commented that he really liked our approach to human performance improvement. I’ll spare you the details of lecture we presented, but the basic idea was that awareness through safety training about human performance, health and safety, human factors etc. is great but what should you actually DO to help shape safe behaviors?

He said a common mistake he sees in a lot of organizations is starting the process too far down the road. We usually start safety training at a level that is too advanced and don’t give the right kind of human performance coaching.

The analogy Mike used was training Shamu how to jump over a pole to receive a fish. (note: neither of us are fans of whales in captivity, but the analogy is worth sharing.) He said there are two ways train the whale to jump over the pole. The first way is to put a trainer by the tank with a fish, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When the whale happens to breach over the pole the trainer will then give him/her a fish.

It could be years before the whale randomly decides to jump over the pole and even then he/she may not make the connection between the behavior and the reward. The trainer would likely have to sit there forever to “catch” the whale exhibiting the correct behavior enough times before the whale really learns what’s going on.

The second way is to place the pole under the water, halfway between the bottom and the waterline. When the whale swims over the pole he/she is given a fish and the pole is raised a little bit. This is done until the pole is at the waterline and whale now must jump out of the water to go over the pole; which the whale will do because they are smart.

Again, whale goes over pole, whale gets fish, pole is raised. Eventually, the pole is high out of the water and the whale knows what behavior needs to be exhibited to get the reward.

Human Performance Coaching

The same goes for safety training, human performance coaching, and improving safety culture. Often, organizations will put the pole high above the water and hope the workers figure it out. The tool or resource is in place, but the workers don’t know what to do with it or if they do understand they are not sure they CAN do it.

Human performance training and development must involve little “wins” that are coached and built upon. Health and safety improvement needs to start small and grow into the safety culture you desire. Positive reinforcement must be continually used to ensure positive safety behaviors are continued and engrained in the culture.

Putting a program in place and then waiting for the magic to happen is the wrong formula. Expectations may not be clear and may seem out of reach. It takes a clear strategy, continuous coaching, and a willingness to be patient while workers learn human performance or safe behaviors. Start small and develop into something amazing.

If you are looking for more insights or help in developing your safety culture, feel free to send me an email at dsowers@knowledgevine.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.