Safety leadership: Lean principles: The connection to safety

Editor’s Note: Creating a dialogue, keeping the focus, asking the right questions – achieving and sustaining an injury-free workplace demands strong leadership. Throughout 2012 in Safety+Health, experts from Ojai, CA-based consulting firm BST will share their point of view on what leaders need to know to guide their organizations to achieve world-class safety performance.

By Jennifer McKelvey

Leaders with operating responsibility have no charge greater than the safety of their people. Weaving that value for safety into the priorities of quality, on-time delivery and production can be daunting.

Such was the case for a senior leader who recently asked, “Is there a connection between safety and lean? And, if so, what is it?”

It’s a great question. He was concerned about creating an unintended perception that his organization’s value and energy for safety was waning as they undertook implementation of lean principles. Our experience is that lean principles and safety are not mutually exclusive – it is not lean or safety; it is “AND.” The trick for leaders is understanding how to identify and communicate the fit.

A natural partnership

Judging by the name alone, lean principles might seem to conflict with the demands of safety. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that the disciplines actually support each other in at least three important ways:

  1. The focus of lean is standardized work. Standardized work defines process stability. If standardized work cannot be completed as defined, it signals instability. When instability exists, exposure is likely to increase. If work is unable to be performed in the designated time, it signals a problem. Whether assembling a part, mining coal or drilling for oil, completing the task without rushing by following the steps specified (no more and no less) in the order they were expected to be done should mean it is done at a level of exposure the organization accepts. All of the steps cannot be completed? They are unable to be done in the designed order? In these cases, exposure increases and instability triggers problem solving that can address both.
  2. Elimination of waste. Lean defines the elements of waste as overproduction, inventory, motion, transportation, defects and overprocessing. An increase in waste can lead to increased exposure. Consequently, leaders make the connection that working on eliminating waste also improves safety. For example, if an inventory of skids is higher than it is designed to be, the area where the skids are stored becomes full and they must be tucked into unexpected places. Visibility around corners is reduced. Pedestrian walkways are compromised. Forklift traffic is not able to operate along typically defined lanes. Has exposure increased? Absolutely!
  3. Engagement of people. Respect and care for people is the essence of safety – doing everything you can as a leader to have anyone who contacts your business experience no harm. Respect for people also is central to the true applications of lean, as people have been enabled to contribute to their fullest. For success, both require engagement. They recognize people doing the work as the content experts for that work. If a change is needed to improve efficiency, the best person to ask is someone who does the work. Similarly, if an exposure or at-risk behavior is to be mitigated, those best to help identify barriers and potential solutions are those involved in doing the activity or behavior each day.

A leader’s role is to make a connection between what the organization undertakes and safety. There is no trade-off. The senior leader I mentioned earlier made that connection and was able to tailor his team’s vision, communications and behaviors to reinforce the “AND.” He asked the right question – he started with safety. In so doing, he strengthened the whole organization.

A vice president at BST, Jennifer McKelvey directs behavior-based safety and leadership program implementations for large clients in the mining, petroleum, railroad and utility industries.

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