After he was hired, David White reduced Campbell’s injury rate by 90%. His workforce health and safety secret? Executive accountability and tone at the top. If you work as a manager at a soup factory, there are times when it makes sense to tell an employee to “can it.” A conversation about workforce health and safety is not one of those times.
Punnery aside, it’s easy to imagine the kinds of serious workplace injuries that could occur at a soup factory or other packaged food processing facility. And it’s not surprising that Campbell Soup Company, one of the world’s largest food and beverage producers, once had a lost-time injury rate of 1.24%—for the company’s 24,000 workers, that was approximately one major health or safety accident every day.
What is surprising is how one canny (sorry) executive named David White turned it all around, and reduced Campbell’s injury rate by 90%. Former Campbell CEO Douglas R. Conant, who hired White as Global VP of Supply Chain in 2004, recently told the story in an article for the Harvard Business Review.
“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.”
The article, which explores these tough standards and incentives in greater depth, is full of insights into what makes an employee health and safety program work—namely accountability, responsiveness, and tone at the top. It’s a story that demonstrates that no matter how large and complex a company may be, the actions of individual executives make a huge difference. Here’s a revealing (and kind of funny) example of how White established tone at the top and effectively followed through:
“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.”
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