Chapter four of Charles Duhigg’s fascinating and highly insightful book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” is entitled“Keystone Habits or the Ballad of Paul O”Neill”.  This chapter has drawn a lot of manager attention because of the enormous success of Paul O’Neill’s thirteen year tenure as CEO at Alcoa Aluminum Company and the unorthodox way he chose to jump-start a corporate turn around from day one.

Manufacturing aluminum is a dangerous, injury-prone  business and  O’Neill believed that focusing on worker safety — not profits, shareholder value, stock valuation, return on investment, or reorganization — was the key to an Alcoa turnaround. As he explained to his initially incredulous investors, succeeding in his quest to make Alcoa the safest company in America — a goal of zero injuries — would require:

“that individuals at this company have agreed to become part of something important: they’ve devoted themselves to creating a habit of excellence.  Safety will be an indicator that we’re making progress in changing our habits across the entire institution” (Duhigg, P. 98).

According to Duhigg, by the time O’Neill departed Alcoa, its profits were five times larger than when he arrived and the company’s injury rate had fallen to one-twentieth of the US average.  Moreover, additional habits of excellence were widespread across the organization. (P. 99)  So what was the secret sauce that allowed O’Neill’s safety initiative to launch his entire “habits of excellence” initiative?


Few employee complaints are as ubiquitous in many organizations as is the “absence of accountability” from their managers.  Specifically, management ostensibly requiring the implementation compliance from subordinates necessary to achieve a specific goal but refusing to discipline those who — for whatever reason — fail to comply.  In some organizations this habit of refusing to enforce accountability is so deeply engrained in their operating culture, that new initiatives are almost doomed to fail from the start and everybody knows it.

O’Neill determined that would not happen at Alcoa.  To insure his safety initiative would be taken seriously, he insisted that anytime an injury occurred anywhere in the company, the unit president had to report it to O’Neill within twenty-four hours and present a plan for making sure the injury never happened again” (Duhigg, P. 106)  O’Neill made clear in word and action that continued tenure as Alcoa managers and promotion required embracing the system.

As Duhigg explains, the twenty-four hour requirement demanded that busy unit presidents hear from their vice-presidents as soon as an accident happened.  Thus vice-presidents needed to maintain continual communication with floor managers, who in turn had to get the workers to sound immediate warnings as soon as they saw a potential safety problem.  Workers began providing safety suggestions in advance so that when a vice-president asked for a remedial plan there was a suggestion box full of them.  In time, a whole new communication system emerged at Alcoa simply to connect the workers to the top of the company hierarchy regarding safety matters.  (P. 106)

Once O’Neill’s proactive safety initiative was in place, suggestions for improving other aspects of Alcoa’s manufacturing business began to proliferate.  But none of this would have happened had the company’s managers not been certain of the negative consequences to job and career they would experience if they failed to get on board with the boss’s seriousness and determination where worker safety was concerned.

Few things focus a managers attention — or compel her or his behavior — more than a few conspicuous examples of enforced accountability for failure to carry out commitments they have made.  And few things make management look more foolish and feckless than the certainty — “around here” — that accountability for non-compliance will not be required.

So managers, take heed if you expect your initiatives to succeed.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Managing & Leading, Self-Management

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