These profound principles of worker safety are an absolute must for manufacturers because they merge the engineering discipline, process control and business acumen of W. Edwards Deming to the practical world of employee protection.
Long before I became a safety professional I worked as a consultant to one of the former Big Three automobile manufacturers. I was brought in as part of a State of Michigan government grant to safe a factory that auto maker had decided to decommission. The consultants were given pretty much cart blanche to try anything and everything to turn things around.
It looked pretty hopeless. The plant management and union local were at each other’s throats, quality was poor even by 1970s standards, and productivity was abysmal. The company had already identified other factories to do the work and left no doubt that it didn’t see much hope for anything changing, at least not enough to save the plant.
It was in this bleak, forth down, “Hail Mary Pass” environment that I first learned about the teachings of W. Edward Deming. I was working my way through college at the time and taking business courses at University Of Michigan at the time, so I had heard about and, indeed, studied the teachings of Deming, Drucker, and Juran, but nothing was near as instructive as what I saw on this factory floor.
Many of the workers (both management and hourly) had a strong sense of entitlement and few connected their job security with the way in which they did their jobs. Plant management (and by this I am referring to the practice not necessarily the people) was firmly entrenched in the way things had always been done. Nobody cared much about what workers (again on both sides of the bargaining table) thought as long as people maintained the status quo and did what they were told.
For four long, hard years, my colleagues and I worked with the plant leadership to relearn manufacturing, much of which was based on the teachings of that one man: W. Edward Deming. When we finished and left the plant, it had completely rebounded. Instead of being decommissioned, it was enlarged and thrived for another 25 years until the work was ultimately farmed out to overseas suppliers. But the transformation there was astonishing, and I went on to apply what I learned about World Class Manufacturing to transforming how companies manage worker safety.
I’ve tried for years to get safety professionals to embrace the teachings of Deming and to get them to apply these principles — specifically his 14 Points for Management — to worker safety. For whatever reason, my arguments have largely fallen on the deafest of ears. Many safety professionals, even at the most senior levels, don’t see any reason to change from the way things have already been done.
Then it occurred to me. Deming’s work was rooted in engineering discipline and process control, while safety grew out of the human resources function. This seemingly inconsequential difference has much to do with the state of safety in the world and why it needs to change.
There is a major disconnect between HR and engineering, a great and deep philosophical divide between the two. Engineering is, at its purest core, about change and improvement; it’s about continuous improvement. Human resources (as much as some may argue) is about keeping things the same; it’s concerned with compliance and fairness and rules and doing the same thing the same way every time. The problem is, things are broken in safety, and things had better change before we all go broke.
I get a lot of guff when I talk about safety being broken. After all, haven’t we made great strides in safety? Injuries are on the decrease, aren’t they? Well sure, we’ve made progress. And yes, injuries seem to be going down, but . . . so what?
Several years ago I toured a plant that manufactured fiberglass. It had invested heavily in behavior-based safety and prided itself in how terribly concerned it was with safety. This 360-employee facility had a safety committee of 16 workers who spent, by their own account, about 15–20 hours a week in safety-related activity. The plant had claimed to do over 7,000 safety observations, started every shift with a safety talk, and you literally couldn’t look in any direction without having your senses assaulted by some insipid reminder to work safe.
They even had a children’s safety poster contest where the employees’ children competed to make the best reminder for mom and dad to work more safely. (Years later I asked what kind of a sick creep introduces the possibility that mommy or daddy will be killed in an industrial accident to the mind of a 6- to 8-year-old, only to have my email in box blown up with hate mail from a bunch of out of touch safety fossils.)
Perhaps the biggest sign that the leadership of this facility had long sense left the rails was the $250 per employee bonus that was given out anytime there were no recordable injuries — every quarter. Workers were given $1000 extra a year just as long as nobody reported an injury. If your organization can afford to throw away this kind of money without showing any business results, then stop reading; nothing you will read here will help you if you honestly believe that this kind of bloated, wastrel approach to safety is smart business.
For those of you still reading, here are my 14 points for workplace safety. Some are adapted from Deming’s points and others I derived from my many years experience working in business optimization, because you can’t be successful in business if you don’t manage workplace safety:
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