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By questioning the value and return on investment of departments, organizations are certain to eliminate redundant efforts between quality, lean, and safety groups. In Part 5 of our series on Back to Basics in Safety, Phil La Duke of Rockford Greene explores the shared role between continuous improvement, lean principles, and safety.

Posted: September 2, 2011


By questioning the value and return on investment of departments, organizations are certain to eliminate redundant efforts between quality, lean, and safety groups. Part 5 of our series on Back to Basics in Safety explores the shared role between continuous improvement, lean principles, and safety.

The 1980s saw a complete transformation in how American companies did business. By adopting processes that had been widely successful in Japan, U.S. manufacturers ushered in what would later be known as the “quality revolution”. Seemingly overnight, organizations that had been plagued by inefficient business processes, high defects, and skyrocketing costs associated with waste became world-class manufacturers. It took a while for the quality revolution to spread from manufacturing to other industries (a transformation that continues today), but U.S. manufacturing was forever changed by this influence.

Sadly, the disciplines associated with the quality revolution – relentless elimination of waste, improved workplace organization, standardization of work, high quality training, and reduced process variability – were rarely applied to the world of worker safety. Recently, a handful of quality and safety professionals began applying Continuous Improvement (CI) methodologies to safety. Under the branding of “lean safety”, “systems thinking” and a handful of other names, safety approaches based on continuous improvement are growing in popularity.

Lean safety systems share many common roots with process safety. The major drivers of both are the stabilization of processes and the elimination of waste. A stable process is essential to a safer workplace. When seeking to stabilize a process, engineers try to anticipate the things that could go wrong and reconstruct these “failure modes” out of the final process design in an exercise known as a Failure Modes Effects Analysis (FMEA).

Because all process designs assume that no one wants to get hurt and that injuring workers is inefficient and wasteful, a principle goal of an FMEA is to make workers safer. But even the best FMEA cannot prevent every hazard condition. In those cases where a hazard can’t be eliminated, countermeasures such as personal protective equipment (PPE) or machine guarding are put in place to reduce the severity of a worker injury.

Unlike process safety, however, continuous improvement doesn’t treat worker safety as external from a business system. Instead, these safety systems see efforts to reduce workplace risks of injuries as indistinguishable from other efforts to make the work processes more efficient.

One of the primary methods used to improve the efficiency of a process is a Kaizen (the Japanese term for improvement or change for the better) event. In these activities, workers participate in exercises focused on (a) making the job safer, (b) eliminating waste, (c) reducing unnecessary steps, and (d) improving efficiency (in roughly that order). Because of the priority placed on safety, most lean practitioners see little use for an external safety department.

Another component of lean practices that has profound implications for the safety function is 5S. In broad strokes, 5S is an activity focused on organizing the workplace so that it is standardized, shined, sorted, set in order, and sustained. The emphasis on a clean and orderly workplace – where there is a place for everything and everything is in its place – greatly reduces the probability that a something could go wrong that might injure a worker. In many locations, activities like 5S audits and safety observations are being combined into a single activity.

Identifying the absolute safest way to complete a task and create a disciplined approach where that process is always followed is paramount to many safety activities, from Job Safety Analyses (JSAs) to safety observations. Standard Work takes a broader approach to identifying the most efficient way to complete a task. Safety is treated as non-negotiable, under the belief that the most efficient way to complete a task is (by definition) the safest way.

Unlike many traditional safety approaches, continuous improvement management systems integrate Quality Operating Systems (QOS) into their standard operations. QOS uses highly visual scoreboards to track progress toward their goal. Scoreboards display key metrics generated from measurables associated with Safety, Quality, Delivery, Costs, and Morale (and sometimes Environment).

The review of these SQDCM elements become a central focus in making the workplace more efficient. The safety measurements are ideally a blend of leading and lagging indicators. Leading indicators allow the organization to respond to changing trends, while lagging indicators help the organization to gauge the effectiveness of these efforts.

There are significant barriers to implementing a continuous improvement-based safety system. The primary hurdle is that the move to a lean workplace involves a complete transformation of the basic philosophy under which a business operates. A lean transformation can take years to implement and can be a daunting effort. If done correctly, the move to a lean workplace will involve the entire management team and will touch virtually every department.

Perhaps the hottest point of contention is the practice by lean practitioners of categorizing all activities as either value added (those tasks that increase the intrinsic value of a product or service), necessary non-value added (those steps or activities in a process that are a necessary business function but do not increase the value of a product or service) and non-value added (waste; those activities that cost money but provide no business benefit.)

Most lean practitioners functionally view safety as either non-value added or, at best, necessary non-value added activity. As can be expected, most safety professionals bristle at the idea that much (if not all) of their activities are a waste of time or a necessary evil. Many safety professionals also find themselves philosophically at odds with the continuous improvement team because of their perception that continuous improvement approaches over-simplify worker safety and pay insufficient attention to behavioral elements associated with worker safety. Conversely, lean practitioners believe that traditional approaches to safety are fraught with pointless redundancies and process wastes.

Both sides often feel that increased participation with the other will lead to decreased power and influence in the organization. The inter-departmental bickering is destructive and short-sighted. Given the very different backgrounds of safety professionals from those of lean professionals, this makes it highly unlikely that either side will willingly make the move toward common ground.

As companies evaluate the effectiveness of their organizational structures, more now question the value of departments by expecting a clear and demonstrable return on investments. This process is all but certain to eliminate redundant efforts between quality, lean, and safety groups. As more safety initiatives consume precious resources while producing a diminishing return, some consolidation between these disciplines is inevitable.

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