In the course of a recent conversation with one of my clients' senior leaders, the discussion turned to ExxonMobil and that company's consistantly strong financial performance, due in large part to its rigorous approach to risk management. ExxonMobil consistantly places number one on lists such as Platt's Top 250, which ranks energy companies on their financial performance, and the company has long been thought by many financial analysts to be the most "sustainable" oil and gas company. While I may disagree (strongly) with ExxonMobil's past position and role on issues such as climate change its hard not to be impressed with the discipline the company appears to bring to its operations.
My discussion of ExxonMobil ended with reference to a statement given by Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil to the U.S. National Commission on the BP Deepwater Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling back on November 9th, 2010, in which Tillerson outlines ExxonMobil's approach to safety, operational integrity and risk management. Specifically, Tillerson talks about the development of the company's Operational Integrity Management System (OIMS) and, perhaps more importantly, the development of ExxonMobil's safety culture. Noteably, Tillerson makes the point that a successful approach to safety demands that a corporate commitmnent to safety should be a value, not a priority.
Whats the difference you might ask? In Tillerson's view, it appears to be that a value becomes part of the culture - it goes beyond the written rules, standards and procedures and influences the unwritten standards and norms that shape employees and leaders mindsets, attitudes and behaivours.
Companies must develop a culture in which the value of safety is embedded in every level of the workforce, reinforced at every turn and upheld above all other considerations.
Interestingly, he attributes ExxonMobil's journey along the path to a sustainable safety culture to the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster (and seems the reinforce the notion that sometimes it takes a disaster to build consensus for change). ExxonMobil's safety objective is "Nobody Gets Hurt". Commenting on the transformation of the company's culture to achieve that objective, he clearly defines the end game:
When an organization reaches the point where everyone owns the system and believes in it, only then at that point, the culture of safety and operational integrity has been established that can be sustained - when it enters the hearts and minds of the people of the organization and becomes a part of who we are.
The statement to the Commission provides an excellent overview of the framework that has been constructed within ExxonMobil to support a safety culture. In particular, he outlines many of the elements of the company's OIMS. Summing up, Tillerson outlines three key considerations with respect to safety culture:
- A culture of safety is born within an organization. You can't buy a culture - you have to make it yourself.
- Creating a strong, sustainable safety culture is a long process.
- Leadership by example and thoughtful, honest and objective self-assessment are essential.
While the safety literature is replete with lists of what is required to achieve a high performance safety culture, Tillerson's list is jargon free and as good as any. Notably, his remarks also give strong weight to the role of OIMS - that is the system and tools that give substance to what might otherwise be empty rhetoric. This is an improvement over some of the safety literature which seems to think leadership is enough (like much management literature these days), discounting the role of rigorous management systems. In my view, both the systems and the leadership/culture are essential - one reinforcing the other. A strong culture without workable tools to operationalize concern for safety won't produce a result. And neither will tools without the culture demanding their use.
What got me interested in Tillerson's statement originally, was what it suggested for developing a "culture" around other performance imperitives - such as sustainability. But thats a conversation for another post.