Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lean Manufacturing and Worker Safety

The articles this week discussed the many advantages of lean manufacturing: eliminating waste, increasing resource productivity, and essentially improving the bottom line. The Seattle’s Children Hospital’s processes and systems were continuously developed and the hospital improved not only financially, but also in regards to patient care [1]. In addition with the help of streamlined processes, one branch of Starbucks was able to reduce its order completeness time from 25 seconds to 23 seconds [2].  Despite these benefits, in each instance certain staff or personnel were tentative about the implementation of lean manufacturing initiatives. Some were wary of a continuous process improvement system in a hospital, believing that the health process cannot be standardized and that productivity should not trump quality care in a health setting. Furthermore, some criticized Starbucks for trying to turn baristas into robots, implementing automated processes that reduced specialized, individual interactions with the customer. 

These concerns – of over-standardization and prioritizing productivity over quality – made me wonder about lean manufacturing’s impact on employees and their work experience. Are workers more satisfied with standardized processes? Does automating processes and reducing wasteful action reduce employee strain or injury? Or maybe lean improvement increases injury by forcing employees to engage in unusual or unnatural work processes? Potentially, lean manufacturing has no impact on worker safety at all. I set out to find more information.

A review of E-ONE Inc., an industrial vehicle manufacturing company, demonstrates that lean initiatives can not only improve processes but can also enhance safety measures. The company was able to reduce operators’ walking distances by almost 60 miles per year, and simultaneously eliminated 91 percent of unsafe conditions caused by congested work areas [3]. Standardized work procedures also reinforced the use of proper protective equipment which in turn reduced eye, back, leg, and finger injuries by at least 75 percent [3]. It would be difficult to separate these concurrent results as it appears that the reduction in incidents and accidents are related to the implementation of lean manufacturing initiatives. 

The article goes on to stress that in lean manufacturing, identifying and incorporating safety measures during every step of the process can lead to positive safety outcomes in addition to beneficial process outcomes. Similar to the way Starbucks executives identified unnecessary motion as waste, E-ONE classified safety hazards as “waste” and moved to incorporate the elimination of this waste in their lean manufacturing initiatives. 

Another article stressed the seven typical wastes of lean manufacturing: overproduction, unnecessary movement, inventory, waiting periods, transportation, product defects, underutilized labor, and superfluous processing [4]. The central point is that human downtime caused by safety failures is just as much of a waste. Standard safety processes and consideration of safety at all stages of process improvement significantly increase efficiency and reduce wastes that result from injury, accident, and lost labor time. 

When one hears “waste” in the manufacturing setting, they think of disorganized inventory, delayed supply, inefficient logistic processes, and redundant tasks or actions. But other extensions of waste exist in manufacturing. And whichever framework executives use in implementing lean manufacturing, it is vital to consider all forms of waste – including worker safety and accident reduction – in the process redesign. 

  1. How does the classification of "waste" vary from industry to industry? Consider the healthcare industry with the example of the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Did other forms of waste exist aside from medical tool supply inefficiencies?
  2. Lean manufacturing can also be tied to reducing pollution and focusing on environmental sustainability. Examples can be found in Boeing’s lean manufacturing initiatives which caused a significant reduction of its ecological and environment “footprint” as it was able to reduce raw material waste and scrap, lower energy costs from product rework, and use fewer harsh lubricants and sealants [5]. How can the idea of ecological, environmental, and energy waste be applied to other cases studied previously in the course? For instance, how has lean manufacturing transformed Herman Miller?
[1] “Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital.” The New York Times, July 9, 2010.
[2] “Latest Starbucks Buzzword: “Lean” Japanese Techniques.” Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2009.
[3] English, Paul. “Jump Starting a Safety Program with Lean Manufacturing.” EHS Today, January 5, 2012. http://ehstoday.com/safety/jump-start-program-lean-mfg-0112.
[4] Kincaid, William. “Lean Manufacturing: Unexpected Benefits for Accident Prevention.” EHS Today, June 7, 2004. http://ehstoday.com/safety/ehs_imp_37039.
[5] Ross & Associates Environmental Consulting. “Pursuing Perfection: Case Studies Examining Lean Manufacturing Strategies, Pollution Prevention, and Environmental Regulatory Management Implications.” August 20, 2000. http://www.epa.gov/lean/environment/pdf/perfection.pdf.

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