How sustainable is my company? How sustainable is my site compared with our operations in the future? Is there a product recall right around the corner? I have budget for one more person: should I hire a risk expert or a data scientist? Environmental, health and safety, and quality professionals face these and similarly tough questions every day. Some of the daily decisions we must make can seem trivial at the time, but going in the wrong direction could have major consequences down the road.  Identifying EHSQ problems or opportunities for improvement is easy; the hard part is prioritizing them. How do we determine which problems to solve right now and which to tackle later? Are we fixing a minor issue when there’s a major risk slowly simmering on the back burner?  The EHSQ maturity curve (see Figure 1) is a model intended to help organizations answer these questions and continuously improve their operations. An organization as a whole, a division of an organization, or individual sites within the organization can identify where they lie on the curve and what they need to do to improve their EHSQ programs.  Progress along the EHSQ maturity curve is measured in three stages: compliance, proactivity, and leadership. These stages serve as guidelines to identify where an operation lies on the curve and where the operation aims to go next. It’s important to note that an operation can sit anywhere along the curve and not necessarily occupy a single stage. 
As an operation becomes more proactive, it will move from tracking only lagging indicators to tracking both lagging and leading indicators. Leading indicators are metrics that change before a pattern or trend develops; leading indicators are often precursors to lagging indicators. An example of a leading indicator is the number of hazards identified at a site. Hazards are situations that could cause injuries or near misses; tracking and eliminating hazards will, in turn, reduce the number of near misses and injuries.  Once an organization achieves compliance, management could be reluctant to use resources to become proactive. Buy-in from upper management is critical to continue the journey beyond compliance. With proactive programs, operations are getting ahead of future problems such as fines, employee turnover, recalls, or loss of business. It’s important to communicate to management how proactive efforts make an impact on the bottom line. The best companies think of their EHSQ spending as an investment—as opposed to a cost. Employee engagement can also be challenging during the proactive stage because there’s no regulation to point at when justifying why something should be done. Humans are creatures of habit, and to change habits, employees will require incentives. For many, the incentive of a safer workplace or a cleaner environment will be enough; others will need to be incentivized in other ways. Do groups respond well to recognition? Would choosing a specific employee to receive an EHSQ reward each month cause others to copy his or her actions? Also, remember that incentives need to be carefully thought-out in order not to encourage dishonest reporting or over-reporting. For example, offering rewards to the sites or teams that have the fewest injuries might instead incentivize them to suppress information about injuries that occur. A colleague once told me about a proactive customer feedback system for product quality that he had implemented. The program included a mobile application that allowed sales representatives to fill out a quick survey with customers after each sales call; that way, the product team could continuously make improvements. One site had low usage of the application. My colleague started handing out chocolate bars at each monthly sales meeting to the individuals who filled out the most customer surveys. In a few months, the site was reporting valuable feedback to the product team. This is a great example of how a very simple incentive can drastically improve an EHSQ program.
In the leadership stage, operations are pushing the boundaries of accepted practices and innovating within their EHSQ programs. Program changes or actions that are put in place in the leadership stage will often be tailored to a specific business line. Many cutting-edge leadership practices are driven by technological innovation, such as virtual reality safety training, the use of drones to perform environmental audits at dangerous sites or in extreme climates, and advanced systems to detect possible risks many levels down a supply chain. Metrics tracked in the leadership stage are a combination of leading and lagging indicators. Operations in the leadership stage may even use experimental indicators and look for trends. It’s important to note that no matter how far along the maturity curve an operation advances, it will continue to track the same indicators that it tracked in previous stages, but it might rely less on those indicators.  One problem that some organizations face is the use of metrics to benchmark facilities against one another. Because thousands of possible metrics can be tracked, the idea of an EHSQ index has become popular. The purpose of an index is to collect a handful of common metrics from multiple operations so that reporting can be standardized against a common benchmark. By evenly benchmarking facilities, progress can be tracked, communicated efficiently, and dissected at the site level to improve the overall score. (Remember to normalize all metrics: five overdue activities at a 5,000-person site is a very different thing than five overdue activities at a 50-person site.) An index must evolve and change over time as an operation moves along the EHSQ curve.
The norm in EHSQ continues to progress. One day in the future, a governing body will likely require that companies show proof of virtual reality training records just to be in compliance. Staying on top of continuous change and keeping organizations sustainable will always be challenging. The concept of the EHSQ maturity curve is a simple way to prioritize your actions and identify areas to continuously operate safely, more sustainably, and with higher quality than before.   
 is a senior solution engineer at SiteHawk LLC and holds degrees in Environmental Engineering and Business Administration. He can be reached via
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In the compliance stage, organizations work to securely operate without being shut down. This means abiding by all applicable regulations, including those of regulatory bodies such as OSHA and EPA; state or provincial governments; federal governments, including those in other countries; and the customer base of the operation. Knowing all the laws, mandates, and regulations that an operation needs to abide by as well as all the agencies to which it must report is critical to achieving compliance. Many things need to be monitored. One of the most important tasks it to keep track of regulations, which can be as simple as maintaining spreadsheets or holding regular meetings. Among the items that should be tracked are any possible threats to the continuity of business, such as nonconformances from auditors or customers; environmental permits, with their respective actions; and lost-time injury rates, with proper incident management processes. If there are blind spots in the EHSQ system at any level in a business, determining those blind spots and rectifying the areas where there may be a compliance gap should be the immediate concern. Taking care of the items that are out of compliance—and putting systems in place that allow continuous monitoring of anything that could halt operations—is critical. In the compliance stage, getting certain sites—or even certain groups within individual sites—to take EHSQ compliance tasks seriously requires more effort and, at times, different tactics. Even sites that manufacture the same product or perform the same service may need to use dissimilar methods to achieve compliance. Some sites will recognize the importance of sustainable practices immediately; other sites may perform in a sustainable fashion only while being supervised by a member of the EHSQ team.  For example, one EHSQ professional I know was in a situation in which several of his sites would always perform standard operating procedures as designed, but one site would cut corners when he wasn’t there to supervise. To fix the problem, he worked directly with ground-level employees who weren’t following the procedures consistently. To turn things around, he completed the required training to perform the work, and while working alongside them, he shared stories of past incidents that had happened in similar lines of work. By safely performing the work with the team and leading by example, he earned the employees’ trust. The employees eventually changed their habits, which brought about a major improvement in compliance. Metrics will need to be tracked during the compliance stage to identify areas that are working and areas where improvement is required. Lagging indicators—metrics that begin to change only after a pattern or trend has been established—are used in the compliance stage because they are easier to track and provide valuable insight for the business to keep improving. For example, an organization’s LTIR is a lagging indicator because it will change only after injuries occur. The culture formed in the compliance stage is the foundation of the rest of your EHSQ program. If your organization has individual sites or groups that haven’t accepted the importance of compliance, focus all resources on mitigating those risks before spending time and money trailblazing at other facilities or within other departments.
In the proactivity stage, operations should have already achieved compliance and have systems in place to continuously remain in compliance. Maintaining compliance should require less effort than initially achieving it, and the operation can refocus some resources on becoming more proactive.  With available resources, the EHSQ team can concentrate on getting ahead of problems as opposed to reacting to them. An example in the quality space is adding proactive product quality surveys instead of relying entirely  on responding to customer complaints. A similar example in safety is to track hazards—situations that could result in a near miss or an injury—in addition to tracking near misses and injuries. The added attention to customer opinions and possible hazards will drive down the numbers of complaints and near misses.
Figure 1.
The EHSQ maturity curve. Organizations or operations proceed along the curve from bottom left to upper right.
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Even sites that manufacture the same product or perform the same service may need to use dissimilar methods to achieve compliance. 
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