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Paul O’Neil's Fight for Safety, One of the Greatest Turnarounds Ever
Opening Up the Flow of Safety Communication

Paul O’Neil's turnaround of Alcoa from a $3B to a $27B company is legendary. O'Neil knew that the way to keep everyone safe was to find out why injuries were occurring in the first place. To do this O'Neil had to open up the flow of communications from the plant floor all the way to his office. In one meeting with supervisors and workers O'Neil told the supervisors not to "budget" a fix for anything that could cause harm but to fix it. To hold the supervisors accountable O'Neil gave the workers in the meeting his home phone number.

Initially the focus was hazard prevention and control. As the safety communications began to flow, Alcoa started to evolve into a learning Organization. The focus began to to move from "how"to wanting to learn why an injury occurred. This led to studying what was going wrong in the manufacturing process to cause harm when a person made a mistake. Prioritizing worker safety meant studying the production process which gradually made Alcoa's systems safer and more tolerant of human error. This also changed the culture because the the improvements to the systems not only made the systems safer but they also made the systems run more efficiently.

O'Neil led Alcoa to move from placing the burden of safety on the individual and instead have the Organization as a whole monitor and respond to accidents in meaningful ways that made Alcoa truly safer. Maybe, O'Neil prioritized safety over production. Absolutely, O'Neil did not see safety or production as binary choice. To him they were one in the same. This meant constantly communicating safety hazards, safety metrics and safety ideas. This new open flow of safety communication resulted in production and quality ideas as well. Perhaps David Burkus summarizes O'Neil's leadership the best: "O’Neill’s fight for safety didn’t just turn around accident rates—it made the whole company better."
Ref: How Paul O’Neill Fought For Safety At Alcoa