Can Technology Spur Culture Change?

organization approaches technology

Nobody would argue that new technologies haven’t played a role in enhancing safety on the job, but the ability of technology to take a company’s culture of safety to the next level might be open to debate.

In some ways, new technology can present a cart-before-the-horse quandary: How much can new systems improve culture if the company hasn’t already committed to creating a culture of safety excellence?

Katherine Mendoza, environmental health and safety director for the National Safety Council, differentiates between a company’s adoption of highly specific technology that enhances workplace safety—forklift proximity detectors, for example—and a more mature, strategic approach to capital investment in systems that collect and utilize data to produce measurable changes in behavior contributing to a strengthening of the culture itself.

“How an organization approaches technology is going to have a significant impact on the culture of safety because it says a lot about the organization on how they approach capital investment and also it says a lot if your organization is willing to adopt technologies for the specific purpose of safety,” Mendoza said.

‘You didn’t just buy technology’

MHI member Crown Equipment Corp. has learned from experience that technology can only go so far in moving the needle on culture—especially when the customer isn’t quite ready or willing to embrace change.

The lift truck manufacturer makes InfoLink, a system that collects real-time information on safe and unsafe forklift operator behaviors, providing a baseline that operators and their supervisors could use to benchmark future improvements. The company discovered early on that some buyers just weren’t ready to leverage the system’s capabilities.

“We’d go in and recommend technology, the customer would sign off, we’d install it, and do some quick training,” said Dan Zinn, Crown’s director of sales. “And then we’d come back, and there was really no tangible benefit. The culture hadn’t changed as a result of the technology; the technology at best was co-existing.”

Crown now has a large team of specialists exclusively focused on helping customers adopt the system and configure it to their own needs—in some cases, even helping customers develop key performance indicators (KPIs) that they never had before so they can make data-driven decisions.

Customers with a lower-maturity safety culture just need to understand what they’re getting when they sign a purchase order, said Zinn: “You didn’t just buy technology. What you really bought was culture change.”

For companies with a firmly established culture of safety excellence, adopting the new technology is a more natural step on the path to continuous improvement.

“It really comes down to visibility and accountability. How do they make things that happen at the floor level visible to the leadership in the building and beyond? If they’re sophisticated enough that they have KPIs and metrics for everything they do already, it’s pretty easy to go to them and say, ‘I’m capturing data for your traditional metrics, plus providing you with KPIs and metrics that you never had before. All you have to do is figure out how to plug them in,’” Zinn said. “That’s when we know it’s a relatively easy move to get them into this, because they’ve already quantified safety, quantified productivity, they’ve made it visible to their employees, and people are held accountable.”

Balancing cultural imperatives

In addition to being an important ally in key culture-building tasks such as influencing employee behavior and driving employee engagement, technology can also help companies struggling to balance competing goals such as productivity and safety.

“We’ve been getting a lot of questions with the pandemic focus on health and safety about how a labor management solution could feed into a culture of safety,” said Jason Franklin, director of offering management for Honeywell Intelligrated.

The problem: All the time workers spent sanitizing their workstations, social distancing and meeting other COVID-19 safety protocols meant less time spent to meet production goals and trigger pay bonuses. The solution, said Franklin: “Configure the LMS and model factors into the software to give workers credit for time spent on safety.”

Even for companies with a mature safety culture, it’s critical to incent the proper behavior, especially in the face of clashing cultural imperatives such as productivity and safety. Otherwise, Franklin said, some workers will say: “If I’m not getting any accrual time for safety, I’m not going to do it.”

Leadership’s role in adopting technology

Just as in other aspects of building a culture of safety excellence, the role of leadership is key, said Crown’s Zinn. Adopting new safety-enhancing technology is unlikely to be culturechanging unless the CEO and other managers are committed to maximizing its potential and engaging employees every step of the way.

“People are very perceptive, down to the operator level,” said Zinn. “They can tell if somebody’s waving a hand at a problem, they can sense it, and here’s how: Nothing changes in their day-today, nobody notices that they’re not being safe, nobody’s looking at the data, nobody’s coming out to talk to them, they don’t see any KPIs, and they don’t recognize that their location is the worst or the best.

That’s where the CEO or the vice presidents or the district managers can play a role, in acknowledging where success is happening and making sure people know if they’re not successful there’s an expectation that they change.”

Sending the right message

Safety excellence expert Shawn Galloway, CEO of Houston-based ProAct Safety Inc., believes even more modest investments in technology can impact a company’s culture by sending the right message to employees.

“If lifting injuries are identified as an issue and the company invests in a technology solution, technology absolutely benefits the culture because it does indicate to employees that the company cares enough about them to invest in these things that are known issues out there and that make it safer to perform the work,” Galloway said.