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By: Thomas Carson
CEO, Sospes

Scrooge helps us look at:
What Do Leading Indicators Indicate?

Are these the shadows of the things that Will be, or are they shadows of the
things that May be only? – Ebenezer Scrooge

I heard from a number of professionals on the topic of leading indicators over the last two months, and some of the conversations have opened a window into thinking from the field on how data is used. Lagging indicators at first glance seem pretty straight-forward: something happened, there was a consequence, it gets posted up on the scoreboard. These events offer a chance to become better if we take the next steps to investigate thoroughly to learn, improve and avoid a repeat occurrence. Investigating incidents is a valuable source of intelligence for improving conditions and process flaws that might not otherwise come to light.

But what about leading indicators? What are they, how are they helpful, how do they make us safer and more productive? The expectation is that properly identified leading indicators will be predictive of the nature and likelihood of future incidents. Examples often cited are Close Call reporting, training participation rates, some forms of observation reporting, toolbox talks and inspection discipline. Using these examples as a starting place, it seems fair to say that some of these are less predictive of future incidents than they are indicators of an organizations’ safety culture. Training participation and toolbox talks are both positive activities, and if well-attended, suggest that employees are invested in their work culture. But these two examples do not convey predictive information that is specific enough to act on.
With respect to close call and observation reporting, it is fair to ask the question Ebenezer Scrooge posed to the ghost of Christmases-to-come: “Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of the things that may be only?” If you are fortunate enough to be collecting this kind of information, it certainly could be highlighting areas of potential concern. If you believe, as I do, that recurring patterns of close calls or unsafe behavior observations are flashing warnings of possible incidents yet to come, then these are actionable leading indicators. But they have value only if your organization is acting on the information.

Think of weather forecasting: dropping barometric pressure is a very reliable leading indicator of a storm coming to your area soon. The faster and farther the pressure drops, the more severe the storm will be. There isn’t a thing you can do about that storm except put on a raincoat. However, close call and observation reporting are leading indicators of what is coming only if we choose to ignore their message. Unlike the weather analogy, we can change the path from what will be to something that might have been but wasn’t, provided we have systems in place for understanding and responding to our leading indicators.

This re-enforces the consistent requirements in safety standards such as ISO 45001, ANSI Z10, VPP and PTASP for having processes for identifying risks and hazards, mitigating, measuring results, rinse and repeat. So like Scrooge, we can wake up in the morning with the cheerful sense that we have headed off a terrible sequence of events.

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