Jan 18, 2008

First, do no harm

Physicians take the Hippocratic oath, which starts with the promise to do no harm in the course of performing their work. While lean practitioners are becoming increasingly aware of the principle of “respect for people,” changes made to improve processes and productivity can introduce hazards no one is aware of at the time.

In an extreme case, a footwear manufacturer in China made changes at a 13,000-worker sports shoe factory in northern Guangdong Province that yielded faster order-to-delivery lead times, sometimes as fast as seven days, compared to 90-days in 2003. Work in process inventory was drastically reduced. Quality was improved. The factory began to produce more styles and change between them more quickly. Profits increased.

In its traditional production process, work was performed in separate functional departments: cutting, punching, stitching, gluing, packaging and so on. Parts, then semi-finished assembled shoes, traveled from department to department for each stage of processing, sometimes moving from one floor to the next, with masses of work-in-process inventory in between. The change was made to small-lot process flow assembly cells.

In August 2006, a joint U.S.–Chinese research team [insert footnote] conducted an evaluation of the impact of the transition to lean manufacturing on occupational safety and health (OSH) issues. In the new “lean” cells, some of the problems seen by the visitors included:

Skiving was being performed next to hot presses. While press operators were protected form heat and noise, the skiving machine operators were not.

Adhesives and solvents were being sprayed or hand-applied immediately adjacent to workers operating sewing machines, exposing stitchers to chemical hazards that did not exist in an all-stitching department. Although there was some vapor capture and personal protective equipment provided to the adhesive workers, the stitchers had no such protection.

Punch press and eyelet-installation machine operators were provided with hearing protection, but worked near stitchers and adhesive appliers, who had no protection from the noise.

As the research team noted, exposure to hazards is easier to control when they are segregated in separate functional departments and separated by large distances in a plant. Reconfiguring workstations and product flow in the name of lean, locating all the assembly operations from cutting raw materials to boxing the final product in a manufacturing cell resulted in seriously degraded workplace health and safety.

Perhaps the case only illustrates how easy it is to give lean manufacturing a bad name. While no one practicing “real lean” would tolerate such conditions, kaizen events can introduce safety hazards that participants don’t see.

[Advisors – can you give me any examples of changes that compromised safety, how that was recognized and what was done about it?]

Because a proper kaizen team is cross-functional, including a safety professional should be standard procedure. When safety professionals have been part of the kaizen, resistance to their advice is reduced because they are not issuing "safety rules" from management. As long as they fully participate, everyone on the kaizen team can see the benefits of looking at productivity, quality, and safety as aspects of improvement that go together. Safety professionals gain a better understanding of the value-creating business of the company. Managers can be more confident that safety risk is being reduced, not increased.

Some companies have unwisely eliminated staff safety positions, reassigning responsibilities to other overburdened managers and supervisors, or have curtailed opportunities for safety professionals to get training and to attend professional meetings and conferences. Managers need to recognize the importance of bringing safety knowledge into the firm.

Not enough safety experts at your company? It may be time to begin training a cadre of engineers, maintenance workers and production employees to supplement safety professionals in this role on kaizen teams. This is a good answer to the “problem” of what to do as workers are freed up by productivity improvements.

[Advisors: Any comments on “do no harm”?]

[Footnote: The team consisted of Dr. Dara O’Rourke of the University of California at Berkeley, Garrett Brown of the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, and the executive director and three staff members of a Chinese labor rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) based inGuang-zhou]

The foregoing is a draft of a short article I've written, but I'm not satisfied with it due to my shortage of first-hand experience in the field. I'm hoping that some of you smart visitors will add or comment. I will attribute all comments to their authors.


Anonymous said...

Sad story. Full of "stupid meanness" as Womack would maybe say. It kills me when "Lean" (put the machines/operations in a cell) trumps common sense. That factory shouldn't have required a "safety officer", just common sense and watching the gemba, talking to the actual people who do the work.

I don't have other examples to share...

The "first do no harm" construct sort of puts doctors on a pedestal, because you could probably just as likely find an example of a doctor doing something suboptimizing (or selfish) that hurt a patient.

Anonymous said...

one other thought - your article equates "lean" with a physical act -- moving machines. Really, moving machines into a U-shaped cell is the logical progression of the lean thought process... reducing time to cash by reducing cycle time to the customer. Depending on your audience, I'd suggest making more of a "full" definition of Lean as the "thinking production system."

Karen Wilhelm said...

I appreciate the comments. I hadn't thought about the mechanistic aspect of the Chinese example, but you're right. It's lean without the thinking - "machine lean" - so it's not lean at all. That's going to help me make the story a lot clearer.

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