“You can’t order people to change. That’s not how the brain works. So decide to focus on one thing. If you start by disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread around the entire company.” These were wise words spoken by Paul O’Neill who became CEO of Aluminum Company of America in 1987 and successfully managed to multiply the company’s nett income by five during his 13-year tenure.

Managers spend a lot of time and effort to improve the work habits of people. Organisations also have work habits, good and bad, just as people do, yet we accept bad organisational work habits and assume that they can’t be changed as well.

When starting at Alcoa, O’Neill noticed that every year numerous workers are injured so badly that they miss a day of work. Every plant had at least one accident per week. His first line of action was therefore to implement a safety plan and in his very first public address as CEO he made the bold statement: “I intend to make Alcoa the safest company in America. I intend to go for zero injuries.” Considering employees worked with metal that was 1500 degrees hot and machines that can rip a man’s arm off, it seemed ludicrous to not only the public but the shareholders. But O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move throughout the organisation.

Within a year of his speech, Alcoa’s profits hit a record high. What’s more…once his safety plan was implemented, some facilities would go years without a single employee losing a workday due to an accident. O’Neill attacked one keystone habit and then watched as the changes rippled through the organisation. By using safety as an indicator that they are making progress in changing behaviours across the entire institution, he created a habit of excellence.

What is your company’s bad habit?