Systems thinking helps transform SHE function

DuPont initiative works well for occ-health

Innovative thinking approaches that arise in industry often find their initial applications to be most effective in a manufacturing setting. Not all of them, however, transfer readily into the occupational health setting. One that apparently does is called systems thinking. When applied within the Specialty Chemicals business unit of DuPont in the mid- to late-1990s, a systems thinking initiative led to the following:

  • There was a nearly 50% improvement in the total injury recordable rate.
  • Environmental, process, and transportation incidents were reduced by 87%, 29%, and 38%, respectively.
  • Overall costs for doing safety, health, and environmental (SHE) work were reduced substantially by knowing where to target projects to reduce or eliminate the costs.
  • Wastes and emissions were reduced during a time of increased volume and sales by 10% and 33%, respectively.

What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking entails viewing a system, such as a department, as a whole made up of interacting parts, not the sum of its parts. The main power that comes out of the use of systems thinking "is the capability of being able to view the entire system as a whole, and to take everything into consideration when you are trying to effect a change," explains James E. Leemann, PhD, a systematic management consultant with the Center for Environmental Innovation in Scottsdale, AZ, and head of the transformation project at DuPont. "What we typically do is spend time analyzing the dickens out of a problem, when in reality it may not have anything to do with what’s causing the problem."

Leemann offers the following hypothetical by way of explanation. "Our education system creates a sense of being a reductionist — breaking things down into small parts to better understand it. Let’s say a plant manager determines he has a bad safety problem. He recognizes this from seeing statistics on a week-by-week, month-by-month, year-by-year basis. Pressure rises to take some kind of action. Then, let’s say he hears about a behavior-based safety program. He tells his safety professional to implement this program. So the safety professional is tasked with implementing the program, while the worker population of the plant is in no way prepared to take on the rigors of such a new program, because the basic safety program is broken. What you have to do is to get to understand why it is broken: Are there cultural differences? Union issues? Manage-ment-labor problems? Is the community experiencing significant economic problems?"

What the systems thinking process does, says Leemann, is lift all of the layers up so that you have a realistic picture of what is going on. "We tend not to want to take the time to do that; intuitively we believe in our stomach that our particular program is the one to save the day," he adds. Systems thinking actually got its start during World War II, Leemann explains. "Some of the people who worked for the intelligence agencies could view war scenarios in a much different fashion than the reductionists — and this, in part, led to some important victories," he observes. This is one aspect of what has come to be called out-of-the-box thinking. "Typically, an analytical person focuses on the box and what’s in it," says Leemann. "With systems thinking, you also pay attention to what is outside the box influencing it."

The DuPont process

The approach used at DuPont is called interactive planning. "Systems thinking is a generic term that covers a variety of different approaches of viewing the world," explains Leemann. "Under-neath that you have a variety of different types of methodology; interactive planning is one of those."

A number of previous approaches had been tried at DuPont to address SHE issues, "but frankly, they did not work," says Leemann. During the period of 1993-1998, while DuPont was seeking to pay more attention to safety, health, and environment, the company was undergoing a significant downsizing, reducing the total work force by 33%. The company had been reorganized into 23 strategic business units, or SBUs, one of which was Specialty Chemicals.

Leemann’s approach was counterintuitive to what was going on at most Fortune 500 companies at the time. While these firms sought centralized structures for their health and safety functions, he wished to align SHE closely with the SBU’s goals and objectives. "In addition, the people doing the work needed to begin to think of their work in the context of being an interacting component within the larger business system," he wrote in an article for Systemic Practice and Action Research journal.1 Furthermore, he noticed that SHE knowledge was not being captured, so the occ-health professionals had to reinvent their know-how every few years.

The methodology he chose was selected because it would:

  • Target the right work that needed to be done and process ways to do the work.
  • Address how the organization would be structured to do the work, and who was actually going to do it.
  • Promote a high degree of participation at all levels of the organization.

What followed was the creation of a consumer group — individuals in Specialty Chemicals who are recipients of SHE information and knowledge (13 SHE professionals, business, manufacturing and marketing managers). The consumer session participants identified the positive and negative output issues of the current system, and identified 58 specifications believed essential for a recently destroyed SHE system that needed to get back up and running immediately.

With those recommendations in hand, the designer group was tasked with developing an ideal SHE system. A unique aspect of what is called the iterative design process is that it first centered on dealing with the work, and then on organizing the SHE structure. The following mission statement was created: "A seamless SHE system that integrates, enables, and installs the core DuPont SHE competency to successfully make chemicals, win in business, and sustain our communities."

The next step involved identification of SHE functions. For each function, work processes were developed to deliver those functions. The final step was creating an organizational SHE structure. Next, a team was organized to close the gaps between the current reality and the redesign state. Regular planning meetings were held; some of the keys to success included:

  • providing a thorough appreciation of the mission statement, functions, processes, and structure of the idealized SHE system redesign;
  • ensuring an understanding of the business needs;
  • getting agreement from team members on their roles and responsibilities;
  • understanding the true full costs;
  • teaching everyone how teams work in a business environment;
  • confining the overall effort to a manageable business unit;
  • dealing up front with personal issues;
  • incorporating the SHE redesign efforts goals and objectives into annual business goals.

Resource planning and then implementation were the final steps. What he ultimately found, says Leemann, was:

  • SHE professionals transformed from independent to interdependent knowledge workers.
  • SHE performance improved by almost 50%.
  • Enabling factors were participation and personal commitment and disabling factors were organizational turbulence and lack of recognition.
  • Organizational learning flourished among SHE professionals and tacit SHE knowledge became explicit on the factory floor.

Practical results achieved

While the process involved a great deal of intellectual and planning activity, real-world benefits were achieved at DuPont. For example, says Leemann: "[Before the initiative], we had 20 worksites that were creating monthly safety topics. So, in given year you would have 240 topics that had to be created and used for all kinds meetings. You start adding up those hours at all those plants and that’s a significant amount of time and money. What we did was put together a network where we were able to assemble themes that were considerably fewer in number — maybe 20-24. The different plants could selectively choose from those themes, and groups from multiple plants would prepare them. If you reduce the costs of preparing these sessions by, say, 80%, all of a sudden the business starts to pay attention."

What also happened is that people started meeting with colleagues in other plants they had never met, he notes. "They found themselves on the same teams, so what developed was a dialogue between health and safety people and business leaders."

Leemann recognizes that systems thinking may run counter to some of the more popular approaches being touted today. "I’ve begun to see articles about safety culture — about going in and changing the company culture," he notes. "But what I’ve found is you really cannot per se change culture; what you can do is change the work and how the workflow takes place. With that change will come a shift in the culture."

Can what was done at DuPont be done in any work environment? "Absolutely," says Leemann. "The process has been replicated literally hundreds of times, although not necessarily in an occ-health setting. The success that fell out of this was enormous, but I don’t think it was unique. In a worse situation, you’d probably even have better results."

What is required is the patience to commit yourself to going through the process, he continues. "What ends up happening is that people change the way they do their daily work, which is something people do not like to do," Leemann concedes. However, he adds, engendering such change is one of the roles of an occupational health leader. "A good leader is measured in part by paying attention to the interactions, not the actions, of a company," Leemann asserts. "The more you pay attention to those interactions, the more profitable you are likely to be."


1. Leemann J. Applying interactive planning at DuPont: The case of transforming a safety, health, and environmental function to deliver business value. Systemic Practice and Action Research 2002; 15(2):85-109.

For more information, contact:

  • James E. Leemann, PhD, Center for Environ-mental Innovation, Pulse Project Director, 23068 N. 77th Way, Scottsdale, AZ 85255-4125. Telephone: (480) 513-0298. Fax: (480) 513-0299. E-mail: