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How We Reduced Our Injury Rate by 90% at Campbell Soup Company

How one leader enforced tough standards by showing he cared.

This post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review here.

When David White became Global VP of Supply Chain at Campbell Soup Company in 2004, the company had a shocking lost-time injury rate of 1.24%. This meant that of the 24,000 people working in the company at the time, one person per day was getting seriously hurt somewhere around the world. These were bad injuries, not just burns or cuts. They were broken limbs and other injuries that often required hospitalization and significant time away from work. Most befuddling to David was that when he brought this to the attention of the safety committee, he was met with shrugs.

David thought that Campbell should do better. And I agreed, which was partially why I’d hired him. The injury rate was showing that there was a problem with our workplace culture. After all, safety isn’t just about a number in a report; human lives and livelihoods are at risk. A company simply cannot claim to value people if it does not put keeping them safe at the forefront.

David pledged to turn things around. And he did. Over the course of his decade at Campbell, lost-time injuries went down by 90%. By the time he left in 2014, there were an average of about two lost-time injuries a month, down from the staggering 30 per month they were experiencing when he began. And the improvement has held steady in the years since his departure.

How did he do it? He was both tough-minded on standards and tender-hearted with people. He started his second week on the job by being crystal clear with staff about what was going to change and he followed that up by demonstrating, time and again, that he cared about what happened to employees who were injured. Finally, he showed expert leadership in two ways: first he enforced the tough standards with zero-tolerance and then he built up a stable of supporters by implementing a system of incentives to reward the behavior and culture he was looking to build.

Be Crystal Clear on What Matters

David’s position at Campbell, Global VP of Supply Chain, was in its infancy. The role had only been held by one person before him and for a very short time. While safety was under his umbrella, before the position was created it had been under the purview of individual plant managers and localities and, to a degree, HR. There were no universal standards to which people were held accountable.

Within days of starting the job, David sent a personal letter to every Campbell plant manager and warehouse manager worldwide. In that letter, he declared two crucial things. The first was a goal: to cut lost-time injuries by 50% in three years. The second was a directive that anytime a plant or warehouse manager had a lost-time injury they needed to send him an email within 24 hours explaining what happened, how the person was doing, and what could be learned from the incident. With these letters, David made three things crystal clear to the entire enterprise:

  • Safety is incredibly important. It involves people’s lives.
  • We’re going to improve by a specific amount in a precise timeframe.
  • As the leader, I care deeply and personally about this.

There was some pushback. The modus operandi up until this point regarding safety had been sandbagging — grossly under-promising so that not-great results still presented as wins. Across the company, most people did want to follow David’s leadership and reduce injuries, but setting a goal of 50% worried some who were more averse to change and risk. Many didn’t believe it was possible and wondered what would happen if he fell short; would David’s job be on the line? Once again, David was baffled. “If we cut lost-time injuries by even 40%, we’ll be high-fiving each other in the hallway,” he said, and he doubled down on achieving results.

Show You Care

David’s key early decision in lowering the injury rate was to follow up every lost-time injury report with a personal phone call to the plant manager who reported the injury. This showed me how cleverly David was executing on his goal. While many leaders wishing to show they cared might call the injured employee, David knew that ultimately it would be the individual managers who would be empowered to collectively champion better safety for every single employee around the world. The calls weren’t to chastise the plant manager, or even to only discuss the incident. He also used the calls as an opportunity to get to know the managers better, to ask about their lives, and to see how he could be helpful. He wanted to send the message I care and I want to make things better for everyone.

David was so devoted to this initiative that one of the long-distance calling cards he used to place these calls was revoked when the phone company became suspicious of calls placed to Indonesia, Australia, and Mexico, all within 24 hours. It’s an amusing story, but it also illustrates David’s dedication to establishing a personal connection with the global managers.

David’s caring made an impact. Once plant managers understood how much employee safety meant to David, it became equally important to them. This was the tipping point. With plant managers on board, the safety record could be addressed. But David didn’t stop caring once this happened. In his entire 10 years at Campbell, he continued making personal calls every single time there was a lost-time injury.

Have Zero Tolerance

David wanted to get the company to zero injuries, an aspirational goal certainly, but one that reflects the reality that it’s mostly behaviors like not wearing safety goggles or electrically locking equipment that cause injuries, not worker conditions or equipment failures. Holding the plant managers to strict safety guidelines — and exhibiting zero tolerance when they didn’t meet those expectations—reinforced that improving safety was critical to how Campbell saw itself.

When David started at Campbell, the company’s worst plant for safety anywhere in the world was in Brussels, Belgium, where we owned a chocolate plant for Godiva. When David visited the plant he was met with a barrage of excuses about the culture in Belgium and the local unions perpetuating the unsafe conditions. But David knew better; Campbell had another plant 20 miles away, a soup plant that had one of the best safety records in the world. David replaced the plant manager and told the new one that there wouldn’t be any excuses, it was time to improve safety.

Not every case of non-compliance was so serious. David used a progressive discipline system where the repercussions for each infraction increased in severity. But showing how serious he was about safety by taking quick and decisive action showed that he really was willing to enforce tough standards, no matter how much resistance he faced.

Incentivize Change

There are two equally important ways to incentivize people to truly buy in to a major change or initiative: First, you have to find a way to celebrate success in an exciting way. Second, you must find a way to measure adherence to the standard and hold people accountable to the expectation. David did both of these things.

To fulfill the first step in incentivizing people, David developed a recognition program to reward the safest places within Campbell. He developed a safety flag that plants, warehouses, and offices that went one year, or 1,000,000 work hours, without a lost-time injury could proudly fly in front of their building. The program became wildly popular. Plants would sometimes invite the local newspaper or the mayor to take part in their safety celebration when they were presented with the flag. Flying the flag became a badge of honor; employees were proud to be part of a plant that valued their safety.

As for the second step — holding people accountable — David added Safety to the “company scorecard,” a measurement tool used by top leadership and the Board of Directors that reported how Campbell was doing across its most important initiatives. Adding safety to the scorecard not only signaled that safety was important to the organization, but it also created accountability for leadership. With the Board of Directors paying attention, even leadership was now on the line for delivering results.

The Key Is Caring

Many of David’s techniques may seem obvious today, as does the proposition that making people safer is the right thing to do. But looking back, I’m taken by just how seamlessly David’s actions stitched together. And I know the main factor driving his success was that beneath it all, he did it because he cared. When I asked him recently about how he accomplished his goal and reduced serious injuries by 90%, he said, “In the end, if you reduce injuries, your worker’s compensation costs come down, but that’s not what’s driving you.” What is? “Your love for people, your caring about the organization, your caring about individuals. It’s a big thing, people feeling like their company cares about their safety.” That was the message he repeated to the Board and to the broader organization. He never put the emphasis on costs or numbers, he always kept the focus squarely on human lives.

(Photo by Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash)

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