Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Dr. Angela Lebbon on Leading Indicators and Management Systems

Angela Lebbon, PhD, is a behavioral leadership specialist for manufacturing with Eastman, a global specialty materials company that produces a broad range of products found in items people use every day. She specializes in change management approaches to help leaders drive frontline safety behavior and engagement.

Her approach emphasizes a proactive, systematic assessment of management system deficiencies and safety responsibility to build operational and leadership capabilities to decrease risks. Angela’s recent work has included developing management systems to drive training initiatives into sustained practices and skills, in addition to developing resources to better understand what motivates deviations and errors.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Angela to discuss safety management systems, leading indicators, and the impact of human behavior on safety.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

I started in the field of psychology, which began from a personal desire to understand the world around me, to bring a sense of order to what felt like a confusing and chaotic world. Along the way, my desire transitioned to wanting to help others and lessen their suffering, to provide better environments for people to live in and work in. It was by luck that I found behavioral science and the field of safety.

Through my coursework, the principles of behavioral science closed some unanswered questions for me. People and their behavior started to make a lot more sense, which helped provide clarity on why we do the things we do. I was even luckier that my professors set up coursework that forced practical application of the principles, so I had several opportunities to apply what I was learning in corporations. Just like behavioral science says with motivation, I went where the reinforcement was, and there was plenty of reinforcement when interacting with leaders and workers. It always felt like meaningful work, an honorable path that I should take in my life.  

Q: What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

There are ample projects to work on, which frequently leads to challenging me and my skill set. I enjoy learning, so when there are opportunities to work on projects with new people where I am extending my knowledge and the application of that knowledge, I thrive on that. It is amazing how much there is to learn in this world, and how much there is to learn from people. Working in the industry has been humbling. It’s a reminder for me of the immense amount that I still need to learn. I know a lot in this one little field, but there is now a persistent feeling that hovers over me where I think, “What am I missing? What is it that I think I know but am unaware of an unfamiliar aspect?”

My least favorite part of the industry is probably my least favorite part of life in general—seeing people suffer and knowing that I may not have much control or influence to immediately ease their suffering. How would I change it? By continuing to help make adjustments to our systems and approaches to improve how jobs get planned and executed, to improve workers’ access to recognition for all that they learn and all that they do to uphold a strong safety culture. 

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

By developing extensive management systems for safety performance and rewarding leaders for using management systems to drive to business outcomes. It is one of the most well-known problems around leading indicators versus lagging indicators. It takes a lot of work to develop leading indicators; you have to develop measurement systems, create meeting cadences to review progress and stagnation, provide avenues for employees to communicate their barriers in doing things the right way. There needs to be heavier focus on rewarding leaders that develop strong training systems and strong management systems that will ultimately create strong operational and maintenance discipline.

There is an interconnectedness of training, performance management, incidents, efficiency, and reliability that isn’t always clear because there are so many moving parts across so many people. But by using leading indicators, we create an avenue for detecting deviations and errors before incidents, we create higher quality (and fairer) coaching and accountability systems before incidents can occur, and we create more opportunity to recognize all the ways employees are being diligent, doing the right things, working hard, making sacrifices, and navigating the complexities of working in an organization. We can all get better at recognizing progress instead of expecting perfection.

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

Extending beyond training systems into learning systems: recognizing that training is the first critical stage in developing awareness, knowledge, and skills but it is definitely not the last stage. There is a whole other critical component with a performance management system, and even something larger that is categorized as a learning system that institutionalizes learnings across divisions, sites, states, and countries. The performance management system is what I was talking about above with leading indicators that gives us the opportunity to review and ask questions: Are people being given the attention they need post-training to know when they are incorrectly executing their jobs? Were there subtle changes to their adherence? In the absence of any feedback, were those changes naturally reinforced when they completed their job in better ways?

If the industry gets good at using performance and learning systems, I think we will see a deeper understanding of why employees deviate, short-cut, or error. All behaviors are learned. If employees have deviated or errored, we have a responsibility as a learning organization to understand how they learned that in our workplace and figure out what could have been better about our coaching and management system to encourage the right way, to block the deviation, or create a better learning environment to minimize errors.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?

In an effort to minimize the potential for transmission, face-to-face interactions decreased. Those face-to-face interactions are necessary to be aware of how employees are going about their tasks to get the job done. It is in those details of “how” that we learn if our employees are adhering consistently to procedures and policies, coming up with great ideas to problem solve, going the extra mile to detect problems, and taking the initiative to fix things. Being aware of the specifics for all those little things matter for people feeling valued. People want to be recognized for their effort, care, and ingenuity. Recognizing people in very generic ways, like, “Thanks for all you did today” or “good job being safe” doesn’t make people feel appreciated; and worse, it can come off as cliché or boilerplate. Unless you’re telling people what you appreciated about how they went about being safe or the methods they used to accomplish their job, it’s meaningless for most people and eventually, can do harm to a culture.

The pandemic also led to the addition of several policies created to protect people, but the frequency at which those policies changed was frustrating and exhausting for people. All the while, as these policies are being added and changing, less people are able to be present to recognize the flexibility and effort required by the frontline to adhere to those changes. I am not so sure there could ever be ample amount of recognition to overcome what the frontline has had to deal with for more than two years, all the while holding down their “normal” job of keeping the operation running.

Q: What are you most proud of?

From a work-standpoint, I’m proud of challenging myself to leave the comforts of academia and enter the chemical industry to apply behavioral science and safety leadership. I find myself humbled by what mechanics and operators face daily to get the job done, all the information they have to remember, all the skills they need to keep our operation safely running. It is also amazing to see what several layers of leadership must navigate and juggle on a daily basis to manage the operation and support our people.

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

It has helped me to think of myself as a company consultant to my organizational counterparts, whether that be manufacturing or maintenance. They are the customer. I have an obligation to meet them where they are at and build a solution that they have confidence will not only improve the situation but will also be feasible to implement given current resources and change management aspects. If I offer up a suggestion, I have a responsibility to be in it with them at various stages to support their implementation, to help adjust if something isn’t going well, and to tailor information and tools according to their needs, according to how they want to communicate throughout their organization.

Also, offer up multiple solutions to a problem. Don’t just lock someone into one option, because technically one option becomes two options: I can do that, or I can’t do that and need to table it for later. If you provide variations of what you think the solution could be, now you’ve got something to work with to determine which parts seem feasible versus those that don’t. You can begin to negotiate on a path forward, knowing that growth is about continuous learning.