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Feb 12, 2018

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Lean Safety

Join the Community of Safety Pros today!

In this episode, I want to talk about Lean manufacturing principles and how they can help you transform safety in your organization.

If you listen to this podcast regularly (and I hope you do!), you probably have heard me tell you to look at the tools the lean or quality folks use in your organization. And there is a good reason for that, and they CAN help you improve safety processes.

I will reference two good books I studied and draw upon their lessons in this episode. One is called Lean Safety: Transforming your safety program with lean management by Robert B. Hafey. The other is called Safety Performance in a Lean Environment: A guide to building safety into a process by Paul F. English.


Lean is a manufacturing philosophy that reduces the total cycle time between taking a customer order and the shipment by eliminating waste.

What is excellent about lean principles is that they apply to all business processes, especially safety. Also, lean can be used for all types of businesses.

Edward Demming is widely considered the father of lean and what became the Toyota Production System (TPS). After WWII, he went to Japan to teach Japanese business leaders how to improve quality, and his work went unnoticed in the US until the early 1980s.

Of course, that period is important; it’s when Japanese automakers overtook US companies in quality and productivity. Ford first brought Demming in to help improve their quality.

This was when Demming determined Ford’s quality systems were not at fault, but instead, their management practices were. A significant cultural change would be needed.

So Demming developed 14 points of management. Let’s go through them and see how they relate to safety:

  1. Create constancy of purpose for improving products and services.
  2. Adopt the new philosophy.
  3. Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality.
  4. End the practice of awarding business on price alone; instead, minimize total cost by working with a single supplier.
  5. Improve constantly and forever every process for planning, production, and service.
  6. Institute training on the job.
  7. Adopt and institute leadership.
  8. Drive out fear.
  9. Break down barriers between staff areas.
  10. Eliminate slogans, exhortations, and targets for the workforce.
  11. Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management.
  12. Remove barriers that rob people of pride in workmanship, and eliminate the annual rating or merit system.
  13. Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone.
  14. Put everybody in the company to work accomplishing the transformation.

Tools to Use

It is clear to see how universal these can be. Another useful tool we can take from lean (and trust me, there are many, as I have covered in past episodes) is DMAIC: Define, Measure, Analysis, Improve, and Control.

Let’s go through what this might look like for safety.

  • Define: Who is the customer? What is the voice of the customer? What is critical to safety? What is the cost of poor safety?
  • Measure: Cause & Effect fishbone. Is the safety process in control? What is the current safety process performance (or capability)? What actions are being taken to protect the employee/company (containment)?
  • Analysis: Which issues are affecting health & safety the most? At which measurements are you looking? How many samples do you need to conclude this?
  • Improve: What is the ideal solution? What is the proof the solution will work? How many trials are needed? What is the work plan to implement and validate the solution?
  • Control: Can you demonstrate the improvement is sustainable over time? Is the process in control? How do we keep it that way?

Again, here is just one example of how lean principles and tools can be applied to safety. Furthermore, this can empower everyone in an organization to champion safety. So safety leadership doesn’t require a business leader or manager. Shop floor workers can get lean training and begin identifying ways to improve the systems they have to interface with every day, including safety.


We see this in accident investigations as well. One of my favorite lines is to focus on the process, not the person. In his book, Lean Safety, Robert Hafey tells a story about accidents at a manufacturer he once toured, where they uncovered a trend involving forklift accidents.

Some managers looked into force monitors; these shut down the forklift in the event of an impact requiring operators to seek out a manager to turn it back on. Most of the incidents were hit and runs, with no witnesses.

His approach was different. Because they had no idea who caused the damage, since someone other than the driver usually reported it, they needed a plan that removed that aspect from the equation. The approach was to invite a forklift driver (any driver) in that area and help investigate.

The drivers were told that they would not be spending time looking for WHO was responsible but instead trying to determine the root cause and develop corrective processes to prevent a recurrence.

They discovered that the majority of the incidents resulted from poorly placed racks, improper clearances, etc. So they went about fixing those things, and wouldn’t you know, soon enough, the drivers that had an incident began self-reporting.

The reason is TRUST! The approach to many accident investigations destroys trust - if it focuses on “what did you do wrong?” instead of “how can this be improved?”

I remembered at a client site years ago, an operator got a laceration from removing a glove to grab a sample piece of metal off the line for a quality check. Management wanted to issue discipline for removing PPE.

The problem was that everyone was issued the same gloves - heavy leather gloves because of the sharp metal edges on their product. But they were also required to cut a sample piece for a quality check. They all knew you could not pick up this thin 4” wide sample with those gloves on. So, everyone, every worker removed their glove to do so. And management knew this. But the others had not gotten a laceration…yet.

So issuing discipline would destroy trust and drive reporting underground. Also, it did NOTHING to address the root cause; the conditions remained the same. Therefore they were doomed to repeat this cycle.

By focusing on the process, we determined that those gloves' form, fit, and function (on that line anyway) needed to change. We brought in samples for operators to try and then score based on cut resistance level needed and dexterity. That operator became a part of the solution, not just another victim of a hazard of the job.

I could go on with hundreds of stories like this that I have seen. But let’s save those for future episodes!


The main takeaway I want you to get here is to look toward Lean principles to help you improve safety. Mainly build the trust needed to create a collaborative environment where you turn workers into champions for change and improvement across all business areas.

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