Challenge the Process

Leaders search for ways to change the status quo.

By Harriet Harral
Executive Director
Leadership Fort Worth

At BNSF, nothing is more important than safety. Like many industries, theirs is an unforgiving environment with 24x7 operations and heavy equipment. BNSF’s commitment to safety and its willingness to continually seek to enhance and deepen its safety training have had impressive results. BNSF achieved record safety performance in 2015, and injuries have been reduced by 17 percent since 2012. Each year, they are challenging and improving the safety status quo.

Both the Burlington Northern and the Santa Fe railways had a longstanding commitment to continuous safety improvement. When the two companies were combined in 1995 to create BNSF Railway, that commitment was reinforced with employee training on the expectations and values of the new organization, and the message was clear that safety was inherent in its way of doing business.

Shortly after BNSF was created, its leadership created a Leadership Model to provide a consistent focus and a common language for leadership expectations, and that model was reinforced through People Leader Training, an annual program established to drive business results through meaningful application of the model. Today, the CEO and five other senior executives guide the training content. Annually, all 5400 leaders go through training on one of the model’s five tenets:

  • Create a Compelling Vision
  • Model the Way
  • Lead More; Manage Less
  • Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
  • Make Development a Priority 

This model is closely related to the Leadership Challenge model developed by James Kouzes and Barry Posner that this column has been exploring. Over the past several months, we have looked at the leadership practices of:

  • Modeling the Way as demonstrated by Fidelity Investments,
  • Creating a Shared Vision and the success this created at GE Manufacturing, and
  • Enabling Others to Act and the impact of leadership training at Southside Bank.

Today we explore the leadership practice of Challenge the Process and look at a creative approach to changing the focus of responsibility for safety at BNSF.

The impressive safety results cited at the beginning of this column grew from a focus in 2012-2013 on the tenet, Lead More; Manage Less. A portion of this tenet reads:

“Encourage leadership and innovation at all levels of your organization. Build strong teams and coach them to challenge the status quo, initiate solutions and act with a sense of urgency.”

In 2012, the thrust of People Leader Training was “See it, Own it, Solve it, Do it.” Building on that in 2013, BNSF directly addressed the reality that a majority of their employees are in situations in which they work unsupervised. With extensive rail operations in 28 states and three Canadian provinces, BNSF has a broadly dispersed workforce. It became clear that if safety policies and procedures were going to be reinforced, it was going to require peer-to-peer interactions.

Debra Ross, assistant vice president of learning and development, said organizational assessments found BNSF employees were already committed to speaking up and approaching each other on safety topics. So it made sense to leverage this strength to bring the organization to the next level of safety performance.

Employees provided significant input on the design and production of an annual training program called Approaching Others About Safety. It is based on a simple concept: If you care about your co-worker, you will interact with them to reinforce safe behavior and to recommend a safer approach when you see unsafe behavior.

Each year for the last four years, 30,000 employees have been trained by 450 union-represented peers in the largest training program BNSF has undertaken. The training provides employees the authority to take action and to do so with a sense of urgency. This is revolutionary in the railroad industry.

Ross emphasizes that success requires executive support and ownership. At BNSF, the executive team provides guidance on content and is also the first team to attend the annual training. In addition, BNSF builds development goals based on the training into each leader’s performance expectations.

The results speak for themselves. Challenging the process of the traditional safety training process has firmly reinforced BNSF’s leadership role in the rail industry as its employees continue on the path toward operating free of accidents and injuries.