Lean and Safety Differently

Over the last 6 months two things have really grabbed my attention and made me think how I, as a safety practitioner, can try to influence and have a part in creating a safer environment for all those who are employed in the organisation I work for.

These two things are the Safety Differently approach and Lean Safety thinking. This in turn led to many conversations on whether these two subjects actually work together or are they opposing forces?

Depending on your point of view, (whether lean is good or bad), there is available a whole raft of papers and published information to reinforce your point of view. However, one thing that stands out most from all this material, is that people and organisations have many different views of what lean is and depending on this perception and future implementation, it greatly affects the outcomes in regards to health and safety. Yes I agree when lean practices are introduced badly, when bottom line is the most important factor, this can have a large detrimental effect on employees, ranging from psychological to ergonomic issues. The paper by Theoni Koukoulaki on the impact lean production can have in regards to musculoskeletal and psychosocial risks makes interesting reading.

It is my belief that when lean practices are correctly implemented and managed, they do compliment the thinking behind Safety Differently. But what then is lean done right and what is it not?

So what is and what is not lean thinking and practice then?

Firstly what is lean not, it is most definitely not just a resource reduction. This not only upsets the whole dynamics of the organisation, (of course there are situations where the unfortunate laying off of manpower will occur, but these should not be made when developing a lean strategy), but also can increase waste from pressures placed on remaining workers.

Listening to Cheryl Jekiel on the Gemba Academy pod cast recently, she can be heard stating that organisations need to come to the view that lean is not just a short term cost saving exercise, but realise the value of a fully engaged workforce with a continuous improvement skillset.

It is also not just a series of tools or programs to be rolled out as a flavour of the month, forced upon the workforce. In a recent article I posted on Linkedin, I said that standardisation of work is a key element of lean theory, what we must understand is this is not just a standardised tidy work area, (yes these do tend to lead to safer workplaces), nor is it the fact that there are standard operating instructions written by management. Standardisation of a process workplace is a method of creating environments where it is easy to work safely and efficiently and identify any needed improvements.

I am reminded of an incident from a few years back where a machine operator was moved sites, now on both these sites the same make and model of machine was being used, albeit the second machine was a version older. On this particular incident the operator arrived and started work, during the operation he pulled one familiar (to him) leaver and an unexpected outcome occurred causing damage to the machine. The reason was that although the machines were the same make and model the levers were in a slightly different configuration. There may be some who say why did he not read the operators handbook, why did he not familiarise himself, but in truth he was familiar with the machine, it was the same make and model he had just been using. If a standardisation program had been undertaken, if the operators of the machines had been involved in this task, this unnecessary incident would have been easily identified and remedied. Instead it was made easy for the operator to fail.

Malgorzata Jakubik and Robert Kagan, from the Lean Enterprise Institute Poland go on to outline the importance of having instructions and procedures that capture the sequence and method of completion, developed by the people who actually perform the tasks. But how can this be accomplished without becoming just a top down process that adds more and more procedures that do nothing to enable the work to be done?

Respect is a key ingredient to ensure that the instructions are comprehensive and well thought out and give value to the business for both process quality and safety. Line management need to understand that the employee closest to the hazard does indeed have a unique and detailed understanding of what makes the job efficient and the best ways to reduce waste, (both operational incidents and injuries). When managers realise that the different knowledge of staff, when combined can overcome the most complex of problems, then respect for even the most junior of employees thoughts can assist in the positive outcome for a project or task. If this is followed during the writing of instructions and procedures then the workforce will feel more buy in and are more likely to follow and raise concerns when things are not as they should be.

What is lean then? I feel it safe to say that most people familiar with lean will understand it to be the elimination of waste within the organisation process to ensure maximum profit and customer satisfaction. When put like this it seems a million miles away from any safety thinking let alone the safety differently approach. But this really sells the theory of lean short. To paraphrase the Lean Global Networks definition of lean thinking and practice, they state it is:

“Showing respect by developing people to continuously improve the work through problem solving, minimizing/eliminating waste such as time, human effort, injuries etc. and asking what type of management behaviour and system is needed to improve and transform the organisation”.

This indicates that a strong program of employee participation to help/bring change for improvements will not only lead to lean benefits but also links to the safety differently central idea that “understanding and improving of normal work processes is central to improving safety performance”(R Gantt, Safety Differently-A New View of Safety Excellence).

In fact employee engagement and understanding is so vital to a lean culture that in a 2003 survey carried out by Wirthlin Worldwide and West Michigan Works for example, the experts and business owners interviewed, stated that it will not be successful without employee understanding and participation.

Robert Hafey, in his book Lean Safety, (a book I highly recommend), has highlighted very well how traditional safety focus thinking differentiates itself against a true lean process focus, for example “employee is the problem as a tradition focus vs the process is the problem as a process focus; who made the error vs what allowed the error to occur; control employees vs develop employees”,this way of process thinking surely lends itself then to Hummderdal’s thinking in that workers should be assisted in overcoming constraints and expand the features that enable them to be successful.

Lean Tools

What means are available to us then from the lean toolkit to allow this lean safety differently approach. There are many tools available for lean management and all can be used, dependant on the organisation willingness, to improve safety. I am going to focus on 4 that I believe will assist most businesses to continuously improve.

Gemba: this approach is a must for all management. To put plainly Gemba means the real place and is a philosophy to remind us to get out of the office and to the shop floor by doing this we have a first-hand observation of tasks and by engaging with employees we will gain a true understanding of the problems being faced.

5S: I am sure that most people are aware of 5S and its concept of sort; set; shine; standardise and sustain and although a powerful tool to ensure that workplaces are free from clutter and tidy, it is not just about housekeeping and a visual thing. When done correctly it pushes the culture of the organisation towards one of tidiness, where the removal and non-creation of waste becomes second nature.

Hoshin Kanri: What is Hoshin Kanri? This is a process of aligning the goals of the company (Strategy), with the plans of middle management (Tactics) and the work performed on the plant floor (Action). It allows for consistent goals through the organisation to be fulfilled, and helps eliminate waste from poor communication and inconsistent strategy. As discussed earlier respect through the business is a key to ensuring this alignment.

Poka-Yoke: the designing of error identification into the process is vital to the success of any company. It is also a mechanism that allows the workers to communicate problems feeding back into the Gemba of the leadership and creating a worker centred culture.

To conclude then it is my opinion that there are many links between lean and safety differently. However this is dependent on how the organisation implements both. It must understand that these two subjects are not a quick fix, flavour of the month strategy, but a cultural journey. One that is worker centred and creates an environment where the employees are enabled and empowered to participate in ensuring that work tasks can be completed successfully, where lessons are learnt not only from failure but also successes and to ensure that the culture is that of continuous improvement.

Matthew Syed in his book Black Box Thinking (another excellent read) goes on to say that “to generate openness, we must avoid pre-emptive blaming” if we do this we will have a truly adaptive and improving system.


  1. Ron Butcher Reply

    Thanks for the post Phillip. I’m curious as to how you would define “working safely” and contrast that with how work is normally performed?

    1. phillip dowland Reply

      Hi Ron, What I am trying to say that working safely is normal work, however organisations must make it easy for the workforce to do this. For example if workstations are set up badly and inefficient then through human nature mistakes or the path of least resistance can be made/taken. But with lean principles coupled with the safety differently view then, with the employees knowledge and input, resilience can be built in to ensure that normal work is safe work and that when latent errors are realised, control measures are in place.

  2. Yo Reply

    Talking about safetly, I implemented a KPI called safety burden when running lean workshops. The goal was none of the workforce should ended up with more safety burden than before the workshop. With that you can involve many ergonomic methodologies to reduce. Also creating ownership within the participants

  3. Timothy Griffiths Reply

    I read this article and considered what SD/Safety-II and lean meant to me after having read Sidney Dekker’s field guide and Erik Hollnagel’s Safety-I & Safety II. I sit at the sharp end of my organisation (train driver) and considered Erik’s comments about the blunt end often having many layers. So I asked myself, what are the sharp ends and blunt ends of my organisation, to get an idea of how lean I thought the organisation might be.

    At the sharp end we have train crew (drivers and guards), train dispatchers and the engineers who maintain the trains. And that seems to be about it for people in direct contact with safety critical tasks.

    Now for the blunt end, which we know can create and even encourage failure at the front end. We have the CEO and the Directors, Human Resources, Commercial & revenue department, Facilities management, timetabling and diagramming, rostering, performance department, IT, train cleaning, operational standards & training, revenue protection, safety and security, the list goes on….

    Very nearly all of those have an influence over those of us at the sharp end, and so few seem to actually contribute to providing a train service or making it safe. How lean is the organisation? I then started to consider how would the organisation describe its structure? And this is how almost all organisation’s would I have worked for over the last 25 years would describe themselves I think. With the use of ‘departmental family tree’ type diagram. Which is in the shape of a pyramid. With linear paths. Where the people at the top are considered most important. What does that sound like?

    And I did come up with another way to describe the structure, which shoes how lean or not your organisation might be, and how much the blunt end might be pushing the sharp end towards failure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *