The Leading Indicator Journey

The Case for Leading Indicators

Why do so many organizations continue to take a reactive approach to safety? Why is it so hard to maintain safety as a priority?  Why do supervisors and managers who truly care about safety behave in ways that contradict their values? Remarkably, how we measure safety is a primary root cause for all of these problems.  Incident rate, lost time rate, severity rate and other lagging indicators are poor measures of safety.  Such measures tell us how many people got hurt and how badly, but they do not tell us how well a company is doing at preventing accidents and incidents.

While lagging metrics are necessary, adding leading metrics enables better management of safety.  Leading metrics should focus on proactive activities on the part of all employees—measures that track what people are doing daily to prevent accidents.

The idea that shifting the focus to leading indicators will improve safety management is not new.  Some organizations have made good strides toward developing leading indicators and reducing their dependence on lagging indicators. But what should those indicators be and how can we create meaningful measures?

The quality of the leading indicators is important.  When it comes to measurement, we often choose the obvious or easy measure.  For example, if we want a measure of safety training we track what percentage of employees attended essential training classes.  While attending safety training is clearly a prerequisite, just attending training doesn’t guarantee that workers truly learned what they need to learn to work safely on the job.  Tracking attendance at safety meetings suffers the same flaw.

Even the behavior-based safety (BBS) measures that organizations choose to focus on are often the least meaningful.  Tracking number of observations completed provides interesting information, but if that is the only measure of your BBS process then you are missing the most critical information.  What has improved as a result of your BBS system?

If we are going to take the time to create leading indicators of safety then we should take the time to make those metrics meaningful and impactful. The following criteria can be helpful in guiding you toward better metrics.

Leading indicators should:

  • Allow you to see small improvements in performance
  • Measure the positive: what people are doing versus failing to do
  • Enable frequent feedback to all stakeholders
  • Be credible to performers
  • Be predictive
  • Increase constructive problem solving around safety
  • Make it clear what needs to be done to get better
  • Track Impact versus Intention

The last criterion is important.  Always ask yourself: what are we trying to accomplish with this component of our safety system?  Then ask if your metric is assessing whether you accomplish what you set out to do.  Are you measuring the impact or just the good intention?

It Ain’t Easy

Shifting your focus to leading indicators is more than just swapping incident rate for another measure.  It means shifting from one measure to multiple measures.  Most organizations use a composite scorecard or dashboard that captures the most important proactive components of their safety system, including one or two lagging indicators.  Of course, more measures means more time. Identifying and tracking leading indicators takes time.  Incident rate is easier, but easier is not better.  The shift to leading indicators also requires getting comfortable with softer measures.  Many organizations shy away from leading indicators because the metrics are often more subjective and easier to manipulate (pencil whip).  Both are true but imperfect leading indicators are better than lagging indicators alone (and do we really think that incident rate can’t be manipulated?).

The move to leading indicators really is a journey.  It is not a “one and done” event. It is advisable to use good criteria for leading indicators (like the ones above) to create some measures and then start using those measures.  Over time you can improve them to best meet your needs and minimize concerns. There is no such thing as a perfect leading metric, so don’t waste time trying to find or create one.

One Size Does Not Fit All 

Every organization will have its own set of leading indicators that best fit their industry and where they are on their safety journey.  That said here are some categories of leading indicators that are common.

  • Hazard identification and remediation.  Measure how effectively hazards get reported and, more importantly, how quickly those hazards get remediated.
  • Safety Interactions.  Measure the frequency and more importantly, the quality of management-frontline interactions and peer-to-peer interactions.  These may come from BBS systems or other sources, but the interactions should be feedback interactions around safety and be skewed heavily toward positive interactions (as measured by the frontline).
  • Pre-job Safety Meetings.  Create criteria for what makes a really effective pre-job safety briefing (tool box talk, pre-shift meeting, or what-ever “just-before-we-do-the-work” meetings you use) and then use those criteria to measure and improve the quality of these important meetings.
  • Near Miss Reporting.  So much can be learned from near miss reporting it is worth measuring and refining this important component of safety.
  • Action Items from Incident Investigations.  The silver lining of incidents is the opportunity to learn and prevent future incidents. Tracking how quickly and effectively those preventative actions are completed is a good leading indicator.

Impact-orientated leading indicators like these may take more time to create, however they allow for better, more proactive safety management and will ultimately drive better results.

Making Leading Indicators Work

A familiar saying is: “what gets measured gets done”.  As we have just argued, what we measure is important because it sets the stage for what people do.  However, it is not completely true to say what gets measured gets done.  Many of us routinely measure our weight and don’t do anything to improve it.  Similarly many of us measure our speed (with our car speedometer) and don’t drive the speed limit.  In truth, measures don’t change behavior, consequences do. Proactive safety activities must be reinforced if they are to persist.  A positive accountability system that holds people accountable for the leading indicators will ensure safety targets are met.

Keep in mind; the measures are less important than the discussion around what was done to achieve the measures (i.e., the behaviors) and on-going assessment of impact. Frequent, brief conversations about the leading indicators at all levels of the organization are a key to improvement. Frequent conversations establish the safety activities as priorities and allow real-time coaching for improving performance.  The focus on impact ensures the activities are truly driving safety results and are therefore worth the time and effort.  The focus on impact also helps performers see the small improvements they might otherwise not attend to; thereby helping them come into contact with the natural reinforcers of their efforts.

Sound like a lot of work?  It is initially, but like anything else it becomes habitual over time.  No one said safety was easy, but who could argue it’s not worth it?

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Judy Agnew

Written by Judy Agnew

Judy Agnew, Ph.D. Senior Vice President, Safety Solutions Judy Agnew is a recognized thought leader in the field of behavior-based safety, safety leadership, and performance management, and she is an expert consultant who works with clients to create behavioral interventions that ensure organizations are safe by design. As Senior Vice President of Safety Solutions at Aubrey Daniels International (ADI), Judy partners with clients to create behavior-based interventions that use positive, practical approaches grounded in the science of behavior and engineered to ensure long-term sustainability. Judy has presented at major safety conferences, including the American Society of Safety Engineers, National Safety Council and Behavioral Safety Now, as well as other key corporate events. She is frequently interviewed for national and trade publications and has been featured in Occupational Health and Safety and Industrial Hygiene News to name a few. She is the author of two highly regarded safety books, Removing Obstacles to Safety (with Gail Snyder). and Safe by Accident? Take the Luck out of Safety: Leadership Practices that Build a Sustainable Safety Culture (with Aubrey Daniels). Judy is also the recipient of 2011 Outstanding Contribution Award from The Organizational Behavior Management Network, which recognizes her significant contributions to the field of behavior analysis. For more information, please visit Judy's website:

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