Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Safety Improvement Sparks Organizational Change at Alberto Culver: A Single Effort to Improve Safety through Employee Involvement Spawns a Global Movement That Provides Alberto Culver with a Rich Payback

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Safety Improvement Sparks Organizational Change at Alberto Culver: A Single Effort to Improve Safety through Employee Involvement Spawns a Global Movement That Provides Alberto Culver with a Rich Payback

Article excerpt

There are many stories about the difficulties in defining a return on investment (ROI) for safety improvement initiatives. This is not one of them. In fact, back in 1999, when the newly formed Safety Action Team at Alberto Culver set out to improve safety in one plant, little did they know the processes they'd develop would be the catalyst for a worldwide global improvement initiative.

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Fast forward to the present day. There are now 425 employees involved in 46 global improvement teams across nine Alberto Culver facilities with an estimated annual cost savings in excess of $2 million. What began as a "safety thing" has accumulated a worldwide return on investment that is far-reaching and spans different functions. Yet as with many success stories, the seeds of change started small.

SEEKING EMPLOYEE INVOLVEMENT

"Our safety improvement initiatives were not as effective as they could have been," says Tim Hennessy, senior director of global engineering. "Our record was good, but we wanted to achieve better results through improved employee involvement. We had successfully been changing our office culture through improved communication and feedback, but on the plant floor, other than through our standard safety committees, there were many starts and stops." To compound the situation, employees closest to the situation--the forklift operator, packer and shipping clerk--were rarely consulted.

"The initial vision of the Safety Action Team was to leverage the knowledge and expertise of the work force," says Hennessy. "We felt the people actually doing the work are the ones best able to improve it."

Up to that time, many plant floor employees had not been on teams, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. "Too many times, a team actually acts like a committee," says Dan Hochstetter, manager of global operations improvement processes. "Lots of talk and little action."

To assist with the design and implementation of the team process, an outside consulting firm was chosen. "We had a great deal of experience in forming teams to address safety improvement issues," says Jim Kaletta, president of Safety Management Solutions (SMS). "Over the past 10 years, our work at Johnson & Johnson, Brach Confections and Walgreens focused on leveraging the knowledge of the line employees to make significant improvements using a team-based improvement model."

That model was the basis for the first Safety Action Team. The team consisted of six members, including a team leader, administrator, two inspectors, a quick-fix expert and a data analyst. Each had a defined role, yet operated still within a set chain of command. Members went through problem-solving and facilitation training, and learned to effectively gather and analyze data. The outcome was a highly motivated, effectual team.

Dispersed into the plant, the team operated on the "front line" of safety (see figure 1). They conducted monthly hazard inspections and culled problems from data and--most importantly--fellow employees. SMS stayed on to coach the new team through its formative stage. According to Jim Smith, plant safety manager, "The people the SATs were talking to about safety were the same ones with whom they worked side by side. That's when the real issues surface." Just as important, the team had access to a small budget, and was provided computers, e-mail and meeting rooms. The results were undeniable. In the first year, the recordable injury rate in the plant dropped 44 percent, lost time shrunk by 70 percent and there were 67 percent less employee grievances.

LEVERAGING SUCCESS

When Mike Johnson, vice president of North American Operations, reviewed the results, his reaction was two-fold. "First, I congratulated the team," says Johnson. "My next thought was how can we leverage the success in the one plant to drive improvement in the entire division? …

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