Juice Learning at Forterra: a reflection


Whilst idly scrolling through social media recently, I came across a poem by the poet Brian Bilston, who has been described as ‘the Poet Laureate of Twitter’. Bilston offers an alternative version of the mnemonic verse:

Thirty days hath September,

April, June and November.

Unless a leap year is its fate,

February hath twenty-eight.

All the rest hath three days more,

excepting January,

which has six thousand,

one hundred and eighty-four”.

This chimed in with my feeling that the first month of this year has had something of an interminable feel about it, probably not least due to the weather. But it prompted me to look back through my calendar for the last couple of years, whereupon I realised that it was just over two years ago that I first set foot on a Forterra site; the first step on a journey that would take me and my colleagues around the country to lots of locations, delivering hundreds of training sessions to well over a thousand people. And whereas this January may seem to have dragged, the two years since my first visit to the Kings Dyke site in Peterborough have flown by!

The brickworks made a significant first impression upon me; the three chimneys towering above the surrounding fenlands, and the huge brick-built kilns which have fired countless millions of bricks over a proud fifty-plus year history. We spent two days touring the site, learning about the brickmaking process, and talking to as many Forterra employees as we could, so that we might begin to create a relevant, engaging training programme.

We began by devising, in consultation with a cross-section of Forterra staff members, a ‘Safety Matrix’ – a framework describing the kind of desirable behaviours everyone within the organisation should be displaying consistently at work. We based this framework on their four Golden Rules – Assess, Stop, Competent and LOTOTO, and outlined the desired behaviours at three levels of the organisation; Everyone, Managers & Supervisors and Leaders, with individuals higher in the hierarchy bearing increased responsibilities.

The Safety Matrix provided us with the basic structure of the session to be delivered throughout the workforce; the content covered the significance of choosing our own positive attitude towards safety, the critical importance of challenging unsafe behaviours and effective communication.

The next question was how we went about delivering it. This presented us with a complex logistical challenge. Forterra is a diverse company in many ways, with sites of many different sizes, footprints and ages, producing a variety of products, in a range of differing operating hours. We needed to devise a delivery schedule that would enable us to reach as many workers, with as little disruption to operations, in as time- and cost-effective a way as possible.

Our solution was to make a number of short films, with actors portraying fictional Forterra employees in a variety of difficult situations, allowing the delegates to explore issues around safety culture which were directly relevant to their everyday activities. This flexible and streamlined system enabled us to visit 16 sites over the course of 60 days, reaching at least 85% of the organisation’s entire workforce.

An aspect which quickly became evident over the course of this first phase was that the organisational culture was an amalgam of the constituent companies that had been acquired over the years since Forterra came into being, both large and small. For many, this was their first experience of behavioural training, and we were met with varying degrees of curiosity, skepticism, enthusiasm and perhaps a little distrust. However, the sessions generally landed positively, with delegates thanking us, or at the very least expressing relief that it had been better they’d expected!

Feedback from the first phase was overwhelmingly positive; in particular, we heard from many managers, supervisors and team leaders who expressed the feeling that they would benefit from some training specifically around how to lead. So when work began on Phase Two, it was decided that people in leadership roles would receive a supplementary session, alongside the main session to be attended by every employee. In this ‘Everyone’ session we explored the nature of risk, the reasons behind errors and violations, and the degree to which personal choice shapes our culture, with a new set of films to illustrate our thinking.

But we also wanted this session to be a little different from the previous one… when the delegates arrived for their session, they would, without knowing it, encounter an actor, who would be engaged in some form of ostensibly unsafe task of work outside the training room. After about twenty minutes, we would introduce the actor and ask who noticed him as they arrived; some did, some didn’t. We then asked who challenged his unsafe working; the number was far lower. Thus we entered a discussion into how and when we take responsibility for the safety of our workmates and anyone else at our place of work.

Personally, I was struck by the welcome I received this time around. It was gratifying to see that not only were we remembered, but a good proportion of those attending seemed happy to see us. I felt less resistance to the discussions and activities, and an increased sense of ownership from the delegates – a clear indication that leaders had been continuing the conversations we began during Phase One.

Phase Three was designed purely for leaders, covering accountability, just culture and creating a psychologically safe workplace, introducing a number of models to aid them in further developing the culture within their teams. For this phase we utilised two actors, enabling us to use scenes with dialogue, providing a deeper dimension to the sessions. The delegates responded extremely positively to the opportunity to interact with live characters, and I felt the events were a great success. Certainly, many of the attendees remarked that they would like their teams to go through the same session, and that led to the rollout of Phase Four, again with a pair of performers.

The key question here, of course, is – ‘did it make a difference?’ It can be troublesome to attribute improvements in safety statistics to any one particular strategy or intervention, but it is unarguable that there has been positive change in Forterra’s safety culture over the past two years. The All Accident Injury Incident Rate, has steadily reduced every month since December 2022, and had fallen by 25% at the end of last year. In December 2023, the company achieved its highest percentage of zero harm days for two years, a 30% increase on the 2021 average. Between 2022 and 2023, total injuries reduced by 37%.

These results are testament to the commitment and hard work put in by the people of Forterra to improve communication, understanding and working relationships, and I for one feel proud to have played a small part, perhaps a catalyst, towards this achievement. Of course, the journey continues for Forterra; analysis of the data collected during the final phase indicates there is plenty of work to be done to improve consistency, strengthen the willingness to challenge and further engage the hard-to-reach minority. But the company is headed in the right direction, with the momentum to take them there.