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Focus on Leadership and Improve Your Safety Levels


Guest articles > Focus on Leadership and Improve Your Safety Levels


by: Ron Horton


In the quest to improve safety records, organizations often rely on motivational posters, classes or training programs to help teams minimize risk and improve safety performance. However, great safety records are not achieved through these efforts alone. Improving safety requires leadership - organizational leadership at the front lines that is equipped to develop a process-oriented and disciplined safety-in-execution culture. The secret is training those front-line leaders in a simple, scalable process. The pursuit of operational excellence through such leadership training is the key to improving safety records.

I have always believed that the most operationally-capable organizations are also the safest. Great leadership at the operational level makes organizations excellent. And it is that same great organizational leadership that enables these organizations to improve safety.

In 2007, I was the commanding officer of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. That year, our ship won numerous awards, including an award for being the most battle-ready aircraft carrier in the Atlantic Fleet, winning prestigious safety awards and being selected Ship of the Year. We also won three environmental awards and had high retention numbers. We were forward deployed in a time of war; yet we achieved the highest safety ratings.

Operational excellence and safety are not contradictory pursuits. They are both the product of an obsession for continuous improvement, not in the C-suite or boardroom, but where the work is being performed. In the Navy, we call this “deck plate leadership.” The senior leaders onboard our ship were able to improve safety by utilizing organizational leadership and the Flawless Execution(SM) methodology - which includes developing leaders, improving day-to-day operations and closing execution gaps.

Organizational Leadership: Leveraging Flawless Execution(SM) to Improve Safety

Effective organizational leadership relies on creating an environment and modeling behavior that is conducive to achieving mission objectives. In order to improve safety, leaders must focus on day-to-day operations and closing execution gaps by aligning their teams and building trust on a daily basis. If you focus on improving the day-to-day basic operations of your organization, you will find that your safety records will improve as a result.

There are two principle reasons for this two-fold improvement. First, one must plan well before every task, project or undertaking. Planning does not have to take a lot of time, but it does have to incorporate all of the right elements and be performed in the same disciplined manner every time. Second, teams must assess how well they performed once their plan is executed. Did the team succeed, fail, encounter new challenges, or suffer a near miss? We call such an assessment debriefing. Debriefing is how we learn from doing and how we improve every day. Organizational leadership relies on these basic principles to maintain operational excellence and improve safety. Without these principles, your operations may appear as if they are safe; however, in the long run, you are putting your team at risk.

To improve safety, leaders should follow the Flawless Execution(SM) process of Plan, Brief, Execute, and Debrief on a daily basis. Leaders must implement an organization-wide planning process that is simple and scalable at all levels - whether planning at the highest organizational level or for the simplest daily tasks.

After creating a plan, leaders should communicate this plan through briefing. It’s important that the leaders brief what they’re going to do that day. Organizational leadership leverages formal briefings to inform participants of the plan and to describe each individual’s roles and actions within that plan, developing Situational Awareness and aligning the immediate objective with those of the team or organization’s long-term objectives to improve safety levels.

During execution, leaders must hold individuals accountable via a series of short, focused team meetings in which each member is held responsible for his/her duties and execution gaps are identified and acted upon - these meetings ensure that the team remains aligned and focused. Leaders should establish a rhythm of execution that habituates team members to a regular pace of operations so that they know when to expect to perform each of the four steps in the Flawless Execution(SM) process. That rhythm provides periodic, expected organizational leadership intersection points that nurtures the discipline needed for both the front-line workers and the deck-plate leaders, which will improve safety and operational excellence.

Finally, the debriefing process allows leaders to create trust with nameless and rankless debrief sessions in which team members develop lessons learned from the execution process. Those lessons learned should be applied to future operations. Leaders should also have a conduit to spread lessons learned throughout the entire organization, which will improve safety and increase performance levels by accelerating the team’s experience.

Leaders must drive the cultural adoption of this Plan-Brief-Execute-Debrief process by applying it to day-to-day operations. Adoption of the Flawless Execution(SM) process will effectively close the execution gaps in your organization, which will ultimately improve your safety - and your productivity. Therefore, effective organizational leadership teaches leaders at all levels, the tools, processes and techniques that they need to achieve operational excellence.

Effective Leadership and Individual Responsibility

It is a leader’s job to make sure that their team is aligned, and that each member is communicating, working towards the same goal and executing in the same manner. A great leader does not improve safety by simply watching from afar and commanding others. Instead, organizational leadership requires a leader to go down to the front lines with his/her team, whether it’s an oil rig, a paper plant, or a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, motivating and aligning individuals to accomplish what they’re supposed to, every day. By aligning teams, improving trust, and focusing on day-to-day operations, great leaders will close execution gaps and will finally achieve high safety levels.


About the Author

Ron "Beav" Horton, Afterburner, Inc.'s first executive vice president of the Health, Safety and Environmental Services program, is a 1982 graduate of the United States Naval Academy with over 30 years of distinguished service. He is also a graduate of the U.S. Navy's prestigious Nuclear Power Program and was selected for the rank of Rear Admiral, serving in that capacity as the commander of a logistics group, an operational task force and a navy region in Singapore, where he was the senior U.S. naval officer in Southeast Asia. Horton was also selected for and served as the 20th commanding officer of the world's first nuclear powered aircraft carrier, the USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65). In that capacity, Horton led, directed and was responsible for all aspects of operations and maintenance of the "floating city," including its crew of 5,500 personnel and eight nuclear reactors. Horton's leadership won the ENTERPRISE numerous awards, including the coveted Battenburg Cup, which signifies the "Fleet Forces Ship of the Year." As Afterburner, Inc.'s executive vice president of the occupational health and safety sector, Horton is responsible for teaching the Flawless Execution(SM) model to high-reliability organizations. For more information on Afterburner, Inc., please call 877-765-5607 or visit

Contributor: Ron Horton

Published here on: 09-Dec-12

Classification: Leadership


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