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Behavior Observations: Focus on Purpose and Quality Over Quantity


An industrial supervisor observing a worker.

As a seasoned safety professional, I've conducted countless behavior observations across various industrial facilities. The sheer diversity of people and contexts means there is an abundance of behaviors to observe, analyze, and understand.


However, in the midst of this variety, it becomes tempting to shift focus towards the quantity of observations, sidelining the crucial purpose behind these exercises. The primary objective should be to assess the competence of employees in their respective roles and tasks, but this sometimes gets overshadowed by the drive to achieve a high count of completed observations.


This imbalance, I believe, leads certain members of facility and operations management to perceive the requirement for numerous observations as an excessive burden. The process begins to appear less like an effective evaluation tool and more like a needless administrative chore. And frankly, I empathize with this viewpoint.


That said, there is a legitimate need to conduct behavior observations. When properly implemented, these observations can serve as a proactive safety measure, helping to identify potential risks and mitigate them before they escalate into serious issues.


Additionally, they can provide valuable insights into the proficiency of employees, informing training and development initiatives. If you take a closer look at your operation, you might find that there is more than ample justification to conduct a multitude of observations.


In this blog post, we'll delve deeper into this topic. We'll explore strategies for enhancing the value derived from behavior observations, focusing on purpose and quality rather than merely on quantity.


By adopting this approach, these observations can be transformed from a perceived administrative burden into a strategic investment tool, driving improvements in overall safety performance, operational efficiency, and organizational culture. Stay tuned as we provide guidance on making these observations a valuable component of your operations rather than valueless busy work.


Why Should You Conduct Behavior Observations?


Picture with a board spelling why with a question mark.

Evaluating Competency

Behavior observations play a pivotal role in evaluating employee competence, a critical component of organizational success. Indeed, organizations hire employees to perform specific tasks and roles, with the expectation that they will execute these tasks adequately, if not excellently.


It is therefore reasonable to question the rationale behind hiring employees who cannot meet this standard. To ensure that employees maintain the required level of competence, especially if they are new to a particular line of work, organizations bear the responsibility of providing appropriate training.


However, the critical question remains: how do we ascertain if the training has indeed been effective? The answer lies in behavior observations. By observing employees as they carry out their tasks, organizations can assess their competence and determine the effectiveness of their training.


This not only validates the employees' capability but also the effectiveness of the company's training programs. Therefore, the first and foremost reason for conducting behavior observations is to evaluate competence.


Checking for Compliance

In addition to evaluating competence, behavior observations are crucial in checking for compliance. Having competent workers who do not adhere to safety rules can lead to painful and costly incidents.


Safety rules and regulations exist for a reason; typically, they emerge from past incidents that revealed significant vulnerabilities in certain operational areas. In response, improved practices are implemented to minimize the chances of recurrence.


If these practices are not followed, the risks associated with the work have not been managed, which could lead to potential incidents. Non-compliance, therefore, can have serious financial and health consequences for both the workers and the company.


Thus, behavior observations serve to ensure that employees not only possess the required knowledge and skills, but also adhere to the company's safety protocols.


Can You Do Too Many Behavior Observations?


Picture of a woman carrying many document binders

Indeed, the question of whether there can be too many behavior observations is a matter of perspective and context. Optimally, behavior observations ought to be utilized for their intended purposes: to reinforce correct behaviors and rectify incorrect ones.


If this is achieved, the short answer is no, there cannot be too many behavior observations. As production priorities fluctuate, it is easy for both workers and management to lose sight of the fact that productivity and safety should be pursued concurrently. A lapse in either aspect could have detrimental consequences in the long run.


Therefore, it is crucial that a company's safety culture emphasizes the importance of conducting work in a manner that is productive and safe. This balance is instrumental in sustaining both immediate objectives and long-term goals, regardless of shifts in production priorities.


The "Too Many Behavior Observations" Complaint

The complaint about conducting "too many behavior observations" often arises when a company sets a compulsory number of observations within a specific timeframe. This quota is typically determined by the size of the workforce, requiring each employee - full-time, part-time, or temporary – to execute their duties both competently and compliantly. To production and operations teams, this number often feels exorbitant.


These teams are tasked with maintaining high levels of production, and in a facility running on lean principles, where can they carve out additional time for these observations?


The root of the issue, it seems, is not the number of observations, but rather a perceived lack of value in conducting them amid other tasks deemed more critical. I fundamentally disagree with this viewpoint.


Regardless of the number of observations completed, failing to ensure your workers are skilled and performing as trained will inevitably impact your productivity and profitability negatively.


More Observations are Conducted than You Think

A considerable probability exists that you, as a manager, supervisor, or lead person, have conducted and continue to conduct numerous observations. In the process of ensuring your workers are performing their tasks correctly and productively, you are essentially carrying out observations.


The challenge arises when very few of these observations are documented. Remember the age-old saying, "If it isn't written down, it didn't happen." There's an element of truth to this, particularly when maintaining an objective evaluation.


It's effortless to believe you've accomplished something and communicated it to someone else. However, if you wrote it down and they signed off on receiving it, there's proof that it happened. This fosters accountability for both the observer and the observed.


Further, documenting observations and tracking them through a software solution, or in a more traditional manner using spreadsheets and graphs, allows you to gauge your successes and areas requiring improvement.


A significant part of the frustration regarding extensive behavioral observations may stem from the requirement to document them. If a company is intent on monitoring a particular aspect, it necessitates thorough documentation and counting.


Members of facility management may typically perform several times the required number of observations per month. While this is beneficial, the trouble arises when the documentation of these observations is not proportional to their frequency.


Thus, when expected to carry out, document, and tally these observations, the complaint of "too many" observations often surfaces. This is primarily because this process requires additional time, focus, and a deliberate effort.


If the perceived benefit does not justify the effort, there may be reluctance to complete the task. This resistance can lead to delays or procrastination in executing these critical observations.


How Many Observations Do You Need to Do?


Young female warehouse worker counting material

Competency-Focused Observations Based on Safety Rules Topics

Determining the exact count of observations can be quite an "it depends" situation, but that's not where it ends. There is a way figure out an approximate number of observations you should be conducting.


Primarily, it revolves around your safety guidelines and the training sessions you conduct. It's highly likely that the training sessions cover the subjects addressed by your safety rules. These rules, although tailored to your organization, are generally reflective of certain regulations like OSHA standards or state equivalents.


You'll need to conduct at least one competency-focused observation for almost every safety rule covered in your training. This applies to everyone who has undergone the training, whether mandated by the law or because you decided they needed the training. You'd perform one such training-specific observation per learner for each occurrence of the training.


In cases where a topic is revised or a job function changes, an additional training and competency-focused observation is required shortly after the training is completed. The same holds true if retraining is necessitated due to breach of safety rules or in response to an incident.


Competency-Focused Observations Based on Procedures

Just as with safety rules topics, certain key areas such as lockout/tagout and confined space entry necessitate the creation of detailed procedures. Safety regulations typically mandate the execution of training sessions on these procedures.


Therefore, analogous to the observations associated with safety rules topics, you should conduct one observation for each individual who utilizes the procedure and requires training on it. These competency observations should be carried out at least once for every instance that the training is scheduled to repeat.


In some industries, considering the volume of lockout/tagout or confined space procedures that could exist, along with the number of individuals who use each one of them, it becomes apparent that a substantial number of observations need to be carried out. This naturally results in a significant expansion of the scope of competency-focused observations.


Compliance-Focused Observations

Effective safety management necessitates observing workers' behaviors regularly across different times and contexts. A recommended practice is conducting at least one behavior observation per employee each month.


However, the goal here isn't to maintain a constant, predictable surveillance that employees can anticipate and adjust their behaviors for. Instead, the approach should resemble that of "mystery shopping", where workers do not know when and in what capacity they might be observed. Observations should be done at varying, unpredictable times to capture a true representation of the workers' adherence to safety rules.


Understanding that human behavior tends to change when individuals are aware they're being observed, this approach aims to capture the most genuine snapshot of workplace safety compliance. This isn't about laying a trap or catching workers off guard, but rather about ensuring that workers, who have demonstrated competency, consistently perform their jobs within the guidelines of safety rules.


In instances where non-compliant behaviors are detected, it is essential to delve into the root cause of such behaviors. Rectifying these non-compliance issues before they escalate into events detrimental to production and worker safety is a critical aspect of effective safety management.


Performing Quality Observations


Female industrial worker inspecting for quality purposes

Quality observations involve more than just watching workers carry out tasks. A quality observation is comprehensive, accurately capturing what is genuinely happening in the workplace and effectively measuring competency. The more information an observation seeks, the more constructive actions can be taken to reinforce positive behaviors or rectify negative ones.


Ideally, an observation should encompass the complete process of performing the requirements of a procedure. It's advisable for the observer to have a copy of the said procedure to ensure accuracy and thoroughness, rather than relying solely on memory.


This approach provides a more precise picture of whether competency and compliance are being met than a quick snapshot would. A brief glance may mislead the observer into believing a worker is in compliance, while a more in-depth look could reveal non-compliance. Therefore, the quality of observations is vital in ensuring effective safety management.


However, it is essential to acknowledge that snapshots, while not as comprehensive as thorough observations, still hold value in safety management. Snapshots can provide an overall feel of compliance, indicating whether a particular area or worker may require additional, in-depth evaluation of their work performance or not.


There most definitely are time constraints in operations. So, the magnifying glass should be applied when and where needed, and not all the time. Accumulating multiple snapshots can help depict a broader image of the general safety culture at a workplace.


This is especially effective when the snapshots are derived from sufficiently different vantage points, capturing the workplace from varied angles to reflect a clear, comprehensive view. Thus, snapshots, despite their brevity, can serve as a practical tool in safety management when used in conjunction with more detailed observations.


Key Takeaways


Blocks arranged to spell "key takeaways". An ink pen and combination lock are present.

Observing behaviors in the workplace is not a mere bureaucratic exercise but a crucial instrument for assessing competency and ensuring compliance. The ultimate goal is to establish a working environment that is not only productive and profitable but also safe for all employees.


Remember that these observations may be more frequent than you realize, with the true challenge lying in finding the time to adequately document them. Understanding the value of these observations can facilitate this process.


It is essential to confirm that employees are capable of handling potentially hazardous tasks such as lockout/tagout procedures. When the purpose of these observations is kept at the forefront, the focus shifts from the quantity to the quality of these inspections.


Given the breadth of safety rules, training for each should serve as a metric for the frequency and number of necessary observations. Remember to include your procedures in this consideration as well.


Lastly, strive for a high degree of quality in your observations. Ensure they provide a comprehensive view of the workplace, identifying areas that may require additional attention, and accurately evaluating both competency and compliance.


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