Health and safety and behaviour expert Bob Cummins, founder and director of Edinburgh-based Sodak, is showing how behavioural science can be used in every aspect of business from saving money to creating a more supportive working environment.
Bob set up Sodak in 2013 to help businesses and business leaders to understand their people. This simple idea has seen Bob grow Sodak’s turnover by 400% in four years and save £7.2m for clients including Gatwick Airport and Lakehouse.
After graduating with qualifications in civil engineering and occupational health and safety, Bob spent over two and a half decades in the construction industry, working at all levels from site engineer for MJ Gleeson Plc to head of health and safety and engineering at the Edinburgh Tram Project.
It was frustration with the way the construction industry handled safety that led Bob to set up his own business. He says: “I was in construction all my life, then I worked in health and safety, but health and safety had started to become this really false, patronising thing to the worker.
“I was just getting so frustrated that everyone would blame the worker. Why would the worker ever come to work to hurt himself? You wouldn’t! But people were disciplining them for being injured and it was just ridiculous.”
With that in mind, Bob aimed to help managers to understand why their staff behave the way they do, and how to better encourage positive actions.
He said: “Once I got interested in behavioural science I started to read books around it and watch TED talks about it. I really tried to immerse myself, mainly because I wasn’t getting the kind of reinforcement I needed from the project I was working on.
“I set up my first company in 2010 which was Alternative Safety, but then I realised that it wasn’t just safety that this could help. However, with a name like Alternative Safety you’re very pigeon holed in what you’re telling people you do, so then I set up a company called Sodak.”
Since its launch, Sodak has worked with managers and businesses to make safer, happier and less wasteful workplaces through behavioural insights.
“When we go into a company we try to re-educate the managers to understand what drives human behaviour”, explains Bob. “We spend eight weeks doing a combined face-to-face and online course teaching the managers a subset of behavioural science and then towards the end we pick a problem that they have and apply new techniques to that problem.”
These behavioural science techniques can have a wide variety of benefits for the companies that use them, from improving health and safety in the workplace, to saving money. Bob explained: “In a business that’s been going for a while, a lot of inefficiencies tend to creep in.
“The tasks aren’t actually driving the business’s purpose, so maybe 50% of the employee’s day is spent on work that isn’t actually adding any value to the business, and when we stop them we get the delegates to add a saving. This can be classed as a soft saving because you calculate the salaries of the people who are in the meeting who are now doing something else and then you don’t need to recruit more people as you grow.
“We also work on hard savings, like hiring machinery for longer than necessary so we would decrease the duration that those bits of equipment are on hire for and therefore saving because the company isn’t spending as much money. It can be like a snowball rolling downhill which is getting bigger and bigger, so as a company grows you need to stop every once in a while, and trim down processes to stay efficient. We help them to self-trim.”
At present, construction and health and safety are Sodak’s biggest markets, with clients in the UK and Ireland as well as in the USA and Canada.
In the next five years, Bob aims to extend Sodak’s behavioural expertise to sectors like health, education and TV/film to help some of these areas to change for the better.
As part of this planned expansion, the company is planning to increase its headcount, bringing in more talented professionals to create more nurturing and inspiring places to work.
A new project that Bob aims to lend his expertise to is charity work. He says: “The biggest killer in construction used to be falls from heights, but actually some research has shown that now one of the biggest killers in construction is suicide.
“Construction has a greater number of people with depression and anxiety issues than other sectors and so we’re looking to set up a charity that uses behavioural science techniques to help create environments that make it less likely that people will commit suicide.
“We want to focus on the environment around the individual using techniques that we’ve used in Sodak. We think they are directly transferable to create a better environment and a more supportive environment to work in.”
Sodak has worked with businesses like The Carey Group, the Civil Engineering Contractors Association Scotland, I & H Brown Scotland and Bam Contractors as well as clients overseas.
The company aims to create a nurturing place to work for individuals, who will continue to help change companies for the better across the UK, Ireland, USA, Canada and beyond.
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