The relationship between safety culture and lean manufacturing

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By Brie DeLisi

In many organizations safety and operational excellence are two separate functions, any overlap is deemed coincidental. However, these two functions are incredibly interrelated when it comes to the actual practice and the related values. At the most foundational level, lean processes and safety culture both rely on the same thing: the employees.

The goal of lean manufacturing and operational excellence is simultaneously to minimize waste without sacrificing productivity. This benefits employee safety in a number of ways:

1. The employee is essential to production – you need them, and not only does an injury impact the employee and their family, it also impacts your productivity. There is downtime to address the incident itself, sometimes stop production is necessary to fix the safety risk or for the incident investigation. Other employees may need to cover for the injured employee, which results in wasted time if there aren’t enough employees. Perhaps there needs to be retraining of employees who take over this particular job. At the end of the day, an injury impacts overall efficiency.

2. In minimizing waste, there is also the opportunity to minimize safety risks. 5S methodology includes an element of housekeeping and controlling the environment. Employees are more likely to use the necessary safety equipment if it is easy to locate and use. Housekeeping standards reduce the risk of injury from slip, trips, falls. Improving process times can also impact employee safety – removing excess distance or travel time carrying or transporting materials can reduce the risks of ergonomic injury or struck-by incidents with machinery.

3. The philosophies can be shared. Six Sigma includes analyzing, improving and controlling – we see this in the safety realm through risk assessment processes: identifying risk, controlling the risk and ensuring that controls are implemented and used. Additionally if there is a belief in continuous improvement, that means that “we’ve always done it this way” can no longer be an excuse for why employee to take risks or to rely solely on rules and PPE – there is always a better and safer way to get the job done.