US Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell recently sent a letter to Forest Service leaders, daylighting a report [PDF, "discussion draft", 46 pp] from Dialogos International on FS culture, transformation efforts, safety and more.
The report and accompanying studies show how all improvement efforts are grounded in and guided by organization culture and culture improvement. The studies were begun with an eye toward safety, but it soon became clear that safety could only be dealt with as part of a much broader organzaional transformation.
Noteworthy, the report highlights what I'll call 'Forest Service cultural impediments' that limit success in the short- and longer-run. The report, a "discussion draft", argues, among other things, that these "impediments" are "critical 'high leverage' points that must be addressed and transformed." They include:
- Ceding Power — "[T]o the regions …[resulting in a] lack of a clear, central focus …"
- Mission Confusion — "… [C]ompeting stories about the right and central focus of the Agency"
- Family "Collusion" — "… [P]eople tend to use ["FS family"] as a defense, attributing that others do not understand as we do, and seeking to fend off positions of external stakeholders. …"
- Lack of Straight Talk — "… People often seem to be unwilling to speak out and name difficulties that they see, and attribute that to do so is to run serious risks. …"
- Capability Trap — "… [A] phenomenon where people are working increasing hard but where overall capability … is not improving and can in fact be deteriorating. …"
- Impaired Learning — "… Errors are not generally embraced as opportunities for improvement, particularly now, in a climate where people fear that the admission of error may lead [to retribution] …. Many suggested that the Agency has been poor at reflection on itself, and learning from reflection. … [A] proliferation of rules and requirements … tend[s] to have the effect of creating compliance, but not internally motivated commitment to change and learn."
- Physics of Accidents — "… Changing environmental settings … and budget pressures result in more demanding conditions that need to be faced with the same or fewer resources…. More intense circumstances, fewer people covering greater distances, simply icrease risks and chances for error.
- Initiative Proliferation — "… [Tending] toward a fragmentation of focus.
On the heels of Chief Kimbell's letter, and the Dialogos "study", comes an 6/29/2007 email from a member of the Transformation Team (subject: UPDATE: WO/RO/Area Transformation; to: [distribution list] "wo change champion roster") saying, in essence that, henceforth, employee engagement will be strictly limited due to time constraints and managerial commitments:
Date: June 15, 2007
Subject: Safety Culture Report and Broader Implications
To: Regional Foresters, Station Directors, Area Director, IITF Director, Deputy Chiefs and WO Chief Staff Directors
Last year Chief Bosworth charged our national safety council with examining the ingrained habits, expectations, and "ways of doing business, or culture" that contribute to death and injury, despite visible commitment to the safety and health of Forest Service employees. Enclosed is a summary of the report called "Safety Culture for the 21st Century" that the consultant Dialogos International prepared in response to Chief Bosworth's charge. The report describes our safety challenges in terms of a much broader set of issues and dynamics.
After interviewing over 400 Forest Service employees at every level of the organization and analyzing what they learned, Dialogos determined that our safety record is not just about safety – it is about literally everything we do, and how we do it.
Our safety record and our operational challenges are embedded in how we:
- Contribute to mission confusion by not making hard strategic choices;
- Avoid or discourage straight talk, including reporting near misses;
- Divert energy from mission work, overtaxing people and diminishing our capacity;
- Skip time to detect, learn from, and act on our errors;
- Lose energy to a proliferation of piecemeal initiatives that come and go;
- Support a normalized attitude that it is okay to deviate from safety protocols.
This is not easy for most of us to hear. However, it is critical in this time when we are transforming and realigning our national and regional organizations. We need to ensure that we as core leaders are better aligned; provide more mission clarity; ensure better community and working relationships; and integrate our work and capabilities across boundaries. To ensure our success, we must continue to engage our employees in identifying things that drain energy away from our mission, and integrating what we learn in a single, unified effort to work well, safely, and consistently for the long run.
Our agency fatality rate (six or seven people a year "do not go home") is triple that of the National Park Service and more than four times that of the Bureau of Land Management. Clearly, it is not just that we are a natural resource agency in an intrinsically dangerous line of work.
Perhaps most painfully, our can-do mindset is diluting our effectiveness, overtaxing our workforce and resources, and contributing directly to fatalities and injuries. Every time we say "that rule does not apply to me," we are exacerbating operational challenges that put our coworkers and the Forest Service itself at risk. As Einstein once noted, "insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results." Our culture creates the results we get; we cannot expect different results until we do the hard work to change it. The good news is that we now know we can turn this around.
I thank the hundreds of people who participated in the Safety Culture for the 21st Century project and contributed to the Dialogos report. No change effort, however important, has ever survived without deep commitment from the people charged with doing the work.
I ask you as senior leaders in the Forest Service to:
Stay tuned. We are in this together.
- Distribute this letter and enclosed summary of the report for further discussion;
- hold and promote regional change dialogues, and report results to me;
/s/ Abigail R. Kimbell
ABIGAIL R. KIMBELL
… Employee Involvement: Early in this Transformation effort, I (and the Transformation Team) had high expectations for how employees would/could be involved in a very transparent collaborative process for this effort. Given the timing of and re-definition of the WO/RO/Area Transformation task, the direction from leadership, and the extremely short timeframes assigned to this effort, it is not going to be feasible to engage employees in the early design to the extent I/we had originally envisioned. There will still be opportunities, albeit limited. As a result, it may look and feel like a top-down effort. For this, I am sorry. It does not reflect my personal desires or values. However, it is the nature of the task the Transformation Team has been handed. We'll do the best we can with the time we have. Please call me if you'd like to discuss this further. …Let's hope that the Transformation Team "Update" is simply a missstep, and that Chief Kimbell's stated desires prevail. Let's keep pitching for deployment of both blogs and wikis to engage Forest Service employees and others in much-need "Transformation" dialogue. We will "stay tuned".
Note: 6/19/2007 I gleaned the Chief's letter from:
"They Said It," Archives, June 2007, June 19: "Safety Culture Report'
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