Manufacturing AUTOMATION

The connection between lean and safety

November 24, 2014
By Dr. Timothy

Nov. 24, 2014 – Lean has a seemingly endless stream of phrases to identify its various methodologies — 5S, kanbans, value stream mapping, spaghetti diagrams, kaizen, kaikaku, etc. But according to one engineering manager, you won’t see safety in there anywhere. In reality, lean is more than just becoming more efficient; it’s also about becoming safer, and the results can be immediate.

Pascal Dennis, a lean sensei, once asked, “Why do leading organizations like Alcoa, Dupont, Toyota and others put safety first?” After all, isn’t profitability number one? You know, reducing waste to maximize shareholder value and return on investment. Doesn’t Toyota say that if you reduce the costs of production, profit goes up?

Well, yes and no. The “yes” comes from the superficial truth in all of this, but the “no” comes from the realization that if we can manage our processes such that nobody gets hurt, quality, delivery, cost and profitability will surely follow.

Safe workplaces are invariably productive. They have standardized work, visual management, good ergonomics, flow and pull. People understand their jobs, what can go wrong, how to avoid it, and how to excel. And more than that, they become empowered to fix those things that they, as the people closest to production, know need fixing.


Consider how Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa, brought in a lean culture. He hung it all on Alcoa achieving and maintaining a true safety culture.


Safety is a given in most organizations. But without an understanding of the process, it becomes just a slogan.

O’Neill did a fantastic job using safety to get his teams to focus on driving process improvement. By doing this, they learned much more about their process. As safety got better, so did many other operational metrics. And the rest, as they say, is history at Alcoa.

O’Neill’s success at Alcoa is just one example of changing a habit, or of a kata — a pattern that has the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as it moves through an organization. Katas can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend and communicate.

For instance, consider one event about six months into O’Neill’s tenure, when he got a phone call in the middle of the night. A plant manager in Arizona was on the line, panicked, talking about how a piece of machinery had stopped operating and one of the workers — a young man who had joined the company a few weeks earlier — had tried to repair it. He had jumped over a yellow safety wall surrounding the press and walked across the pit. There was a piece of aluminum jammed into the hinge on a swinging six-foot arm. The young man pulled on the aluminum scrap, removing it. The machine was fixed. Behind him, the arm restarted its arc, swinging toward his head. When it hit, the arm crushed his skull. He was killed instantly.

Fourteen hours later, O’Neill ordered all the plant’s executives into an emergency meeting. For much of the day, they painstakingly re-created the accident with diagrams and by watching videotapes again and again. They identified dozens of errors that had contributed to the death, including: two managers who had seen the man jump over the barrier but failed to stop him; a training program that hadn’t emphasized to the man that he wouldn’t be blamed for a breakdown; lack of instructions that he should find a manager before attempt- ing a repair; and the absence of sensors to automatically shut down the machine when someone stepped into the pit.

“We killed this man,” a grim-faced O’Neill told the group. “It’s my failure of leadership. I caused his death. And it’s the failure of all of you in the chain of command.”

The executives in the room were taken aback. Sure, a tragic accident had occurred, but tragic accidents were part of life at Alcoa.

Within a week of that meeting, however, all the safety railings at Alcoa’s plants were repainted bright yellow, and new policies were written up. Employees were told not to be afraid to suggest proactive maintenance. And O’Neill sent a note to every worker telling them to call him at home if managers didn’t followup on their safety suggestions.

“Workers started calling, but they didn’t want to talk about accidents,” O’Neill told me. “They wanted to talk about all these other great ideas.”

That’s when the spirit of lean really started to shine at Alcoa.

Question from the floor

Question: I’ve heard that lean safety gemba walks are good to have. How do I get started?

Answer: Glad you asked! Everyone seems to be on the road to lean, but too many business leaders still believe lean is a program, and few of them realize lean is a philosophy and a culture change journey built upon trust. Lean safety gemba walks can go a great distance to change that.

Essentially, lean safety gemba walks are the same as any other gemba walk, save for paying special attention to safety issues. They are also one of the easiest entry points for businesses to begin or restart their lean cultural change journey.

By focusing on safety and giving focus to the impact of work on an individual, and then allowing them to improve their work processes, multiple benefits result. Those who perform the work tasks end up seeing safety differently, go home less tired at the end of their workday and understand the answer to the “what’s in it for me” question that everyone asked to participate in lean wants answered. The business also realizes multiple benefits: increased employee engagement (trust building); a safety culture that begins to focus on the continuous improvement of safety and not just compliance safety; and the cycle time of the business processes are improved via the safety improvement activities being reduced, which supports the goal of lean (to reduce the delivery cycle time to customers by eliminating waste).

A good reference work is the book Lean Safety Gemba Walks – A Methodology for Employee Engagement and Culture Change, by Robert Hafey.

From the bookshelf

The power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business

by Charles Duhigg

I know this book isn’t technically about lean, but the message about the power of habit is related. At its heart, Toyota Kata is really all about forming successful habits that foster lean.

Charles Duhigg uses recent scientific discoveries to explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. He presents information, but also presents captivating narratives that draw on experiences in the boardrooms of Procter & Gamble, to the sidelines of the NFL, to the front lines of the civil rights movement. He brings forward an argument that would surprise people who don’t believe in the “power of habit” or kata. Those with a martial arts background will recognize this at once.

As Duhigg said in an interview, he first became interested in habits as a reporter in Baghdad. He had heard about an army major conducting an experiment. The major had analyzed videotapes of riots and found that violence was often preceded by a crowd gathering in a plaza and, over the course of hours, growing in size. Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators. Then someone would throw a rock or a bottle.

When the major met with the town’s mayor, he made an odd request: Could they keep food vendors out of the plazas? “Sure,” the mayor said. A few weeks later, a small crowd gathered near a mosque. It grew in size. Some people started chanting angry slogans. At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry. People looked for the food vendors normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found. The spectators left. The chanters became dispirited. By 8 p.m., everyone was gone. Removing food vendors broke the habit.

At its core, The Power of Habit tells us that the key to exercising regularly, losing weight, being more productive and achieving success is in understanding how habits work.

This column originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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