Embedding and sustaining

Nothing lasts forever so isn’t it naive to claim that something as fluid and dynamic as a safety culture can be sustained at a certain level?

After all, ship crews and conditions change all the time and our mental focus and awareness is constantly being drawn towards other aspects in life than towards safety.

The problem is that no organisation can accept that something as important as safety is left to chance and the efforts they take should not be in vain. Initiatives without effect are basically a waste of time and money, so for this reason, it is worth understanding what makes initiatives work and stick.

The answer to this question is not always simple but for Green-Jakobsen we have two very important focus areas we always keep an eye on when helping companies develop their safety performance:

  1. Embedding – The process of ensuring movement in behaviour (effect) and
  2. Sustaining – The processes of continuously assessing, discussing and adjusting safety performance

Embedding is a movement in behaviour

For Green-Jakobsen the first rule is that we wish to achieve a movement in behaviour. We speak of this  as the effect we wish to see. We don’t design safety programmes just to introduce paper strategies, five-year (unrealistic) master plans, shiny booklets, posters, power point courses, highflying words and fluffy objectives (all these efforts we call deliverables).

Programme deliverables support development but they don’t necessarily trigger a behavioural movement.

We all know the old phrase ‘Commitment from top’ and in any safety programme top management commitment is still important. However, it is not Green-Jakobsen’s perception that top management deliberately show lack of commitment or are unwilling to engage in safety. On the contrary, top management’s intentions are good in most of the projects Green-Jakobsen are involved in. They are committed, allocate funds, try to show visible leadership and acknowledge the need for change.

But despite all these positives the problem that often remains is that top management lack the ability/ understanding of how to embed and sustain change.

Top management typically struggle within the following 3 areas:

  1. Driving – The process of helping their employees transform high flying safety principles, words, visions and ideas such as employee proactiveness, intervention, assertiveness etc. into specific behaviour while at work.
  2. Persistency – Understanding how long time it takes and how many times the need for a changed behaviour must be addressed often evaporates when other matters enter top management’s agenda. Management must keep a behavioural movement on the agenda and persistently challenge the achieved effect.
  3. Methods – Behavioural movement is not a mechanical process. It is not equal to changing an engine part. Engines don’t speak, have habits, opinions, possess feelings and moods – they have a limited function. Humans require the fulfilment of multiple interpersonal needs and help to develop. Methods to stimulate a behavioural movement at all organisational levels must be understood and shown by top management.

Explain the employees what it means

To help companies (and top management) overcome these difficulties, Green-Jakobsen’s biggest focus is to help top management explain to their employees how each employee can move towards the specific, desired work-related (safety) behaviour. To illustrate our point, we have prepared the table below showing examples of how guiding behaviour patterns (Green-Jakobsen Safety I’s) are ‘translated’ into specific employee behaviour and thereby make it easier for both management and employees to understand the desired behavioural movement.

But before we go into details let us first have a look at what could be a top management’s safety vision: Here in company ‘Safe Sailing’ it is our safety vision to ensure an open, trusting and collaborating culture where all employees respectfully and constructively live the Safety I’s.

The beauty about this kind of statement is that no one tends to disagree for the simple reason that it won’t pass the ‘Not test’;  We do not want an open, trusting and collaborating culture where all employees respectfully and constructively live the Safety I’s. Creating safety visions is merely a semantic exercise. It does not create behavioural movement per se.

Credit: Green - Jakobsen

The beauty of having specific employee behaviour examples is that both leaders and subordinates can understand better what is expected of them. The probability of behavioural movement in the desired direction thereby increases.

However, we must also look at this issue from a departmental perspective, focusing on the actual work process to take place and to what degree appropriate safety behaviour is lived during the work tasks designated to each department.

Credit: Green - Jakobsen

Sustaining performance requires on-going reflection, evaluation and adjustment – performed by those doing the actual job

Far too long a (more or less) articulated belief has been that safety precautionary measures prepared in an office, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away from the vessels is how we keep our seafarers safe. The (naïve) belief behind this approach is that if only they would follow the procedures everyone would be okay. To understand the grotesqueness of this belief, try and read the following situations:

On board the vessel ‘Safe Sailing’ the company has ensured that the crew has the best mooring procedure in the world, logically structured describing all the lessons learnt from other mooring operations and easy to read. The company has instructed the seafarers to understand the procedure and the crew has done their best to do so. But while involved in a mooring operation the crew experience the following conditions: It’s raining, two of the crew members are wearing glasses and finding it difficult to see much, from the terminal some very bright lights are blinding their view and the officer in change is suffering from fatigue. Two of the crew members have never worked together before and on top of that, one of the AB’s involved is angry after a discussion with one of superior officers. Do you think that the procedure will prevent that these factors influence the safety of the crew?     

The answer to the question is of course a very loud ‘NO’. The only way that the crew will remain safe (and sustain all the good intensions of the company) are the on-going reflections, evaluations and adjustments made by the crew regardless of the procedure. When the map (procedure) doesn’t reflect the landscape (reality) it is the landscape that decides the actions. If vessel crews are incapable of managing the risks that occur ‘as they go along’, what was believed to be safe operations (at the office) can end up as a catastrophe.

To sustain high performance any idea or behaviour must be discussed, evaluated and adjusted on a regular basis and since our topic is safety, we need to address it before anything goes wrong. As stated earlier, safety cultures are dynamic, fluid and continuously changing, and to manage them safely reflective human minds are required.

Reality will show itself, but it takes a mind to make judgements about it. But a judgement is only strong if it contains ‘effective mind-controls’ which is the result of a process of enquiry and interpretation that goes beyond the freak and unverified thought of an individual. The road from perception to appropriate interpretation of a situation (such as the one in the example above) can be short and fast, or long and windy, but if it contains ‘effective mind-controls’ the probability of having a proper grip on the truth increases.

Therefore, to sustain a resilient safety performance the process of continuously discussing, evaluating and adjusting behaviour is key. To support these processes ‘effective mind-controls’ are to be understood and performed by any employee involved in (and thereby influencing the result of) the work process. Proper judgements of reality require ‘effective mind-controls’

Effective mind-controls

The upside of the mind-control challenge is that life within a shipping company offers us numerous formal and informal opportunities to discuss our safety performance. Some of these opportunities can be seen in the table below, but many more exist.

Credit: Green - Jakobsen

Behavioural movement is possible!

Nothing comes for free nor does a company’s desired employee (safety) behaviour. But the experience, research and results of Green-Jakobsen show that behavioural movement is possible. In this respect it is important to underlinethe importance of the organisations ability to define, prepare and drive embedding and sustaining processes. This article has tried describing how to embed and sustain the behaviour desired for.


The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and not necessarily those of  SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion  purposes only.



Erik Green, Managing Director and Partner

Erik is one of the founders of Green-Jakobsen and has thus been a partner in the company since 2001. Erik graduated as Naval Architect in 1990 and has a master’s degree in organisational learning and development. Within the maritime segment Erik’s expertise mostly relates to the development of corporate and individual safety culture (competencies), marine HR and leadership development.

As a strategic business consultant with more than 20 years of experience Erik is specialised in helping companies develop both at a strategic, tactical and operational level. His professional competence covers marine HR and safety projects involving both employees and employers and he is an experienced project manager, subject matter expert, strategic executive coach and as a strategic business consultant. Furthermore, Erik is continuously engaged in the development of Green-Jakobsen’s own leadership training concept, and safety maturity development concept and methods.