How Safety & Lean Go Hand In Hand

Over the years, factories, warehouses, and even offices have gotten safer and safer over ongoing concern for worker health and well-being. As a result, working conditions have focused increasingly on following workplace rules and keeping employees out of harm’s way for the past century.

On the other side of things, businesses are constantly striving to be as productive and efficient as possible, producing as much inventory as they can in the same amount of time. In many cases, safety and efficiency become seen as being at odds with each other. In fact, wanting to speed things up is the most common reason for compliance issues with safety gear and procedures. The emphasis on speedy results and a zero-waste environment became increasingly important in the 1970’s, when Toyota and others began preaching “lean” manufacturing, or a continual improvement culture focused on minimizing wasted time and materials and improving organization and efficiency. Lean manufacturing methods have since caught on in just about every production sector, and have been known to still butt heads with safety plans from time to time.

The good news is that these two business essentials need not be at odds with each other at all. In fact, they can work together quite well. In the next few paragraphs we’re going to go over how I used a lean mindset to improve safety.

The LEAN Project

I was recently tasked with re-positioning a factory assembly line and I’ll be using examples from this project to illustrate a positive lean/safety relationship. The main purpose of the project was to cut down on the time it took for workers to move materials from one station to the next, simultaneously eliminating needless walking time and the potential safety hazards associated with constantly carrying materials and products across the work floor.

After ironing out our goals for the project, my team and I divided it up into three main phases

1 – Sorting
2 – Replacing
3 – Cleaning/Finishing Improvements

The 5S Sorting and Floor Marking Tape

The clean was the first part of the process because we needed to make room in order to move pieces of assembly equipment around. Because one of the goals of the project was to increase efficiency, it also made sense to get unused items out of the way that were just taking up space.

In typical lean fashion, I initiated a 5S project to start out. For those that don’t know, 5S is a method of conducting an organizational project that consists of sorting, setting in order, shining (cleaning), standardizing, and sustaining. While we won’t be going completely into each step in detail in this blog post, I will point a few things out.

We first encountered a marriage of lean principles and safety during the sorting stage. Taking everything off the walls, off of shelves, and placing it on the floor can create a lot of tripping, cutting, and slipping hazards, in addition to just making your workplace hard to navigate in the interim period. Luckily, part of the 5S sorting phase is to organize all of the items you pull out into categories. Using floor tape, we were able to neatly partition off “bins” for items that would be replaced, those that would be thrown away, etc. You can use actual three dimensional bins to accomplish this, but floor tape keeps things minimal and also allows you to easily re-size your boundaries if need be.

For the purposes of this project, we moved assembly equipment as well (the pieces we were working with were fairly portable, as opposed to fixed conveyor belts) so that it could be evaluated before being returned to its new home; this gave us a good idea of our total (clean) space.

The Replacing of Equipment and Pipe Marking

In lean manufacturing, assembly lines are often arranged in a U shape in order to maximize the use of space and place the beginning and end of the line nearer to each other. In addition, this setup allows workers to easily move between stations along the inside of the U. Since this was one of our safety and efficiency goals already, we decided to go with a U setup for our line as well. In doing our diligence and removing equipment before moving it around completely, we also became aware of several exposed pipes that had previously been hidden behind machinery.

Because the original labels on these pipes had long since faded, we went ahead and used an industrial label maker (exact one we were supplied with)  to put new, easily readable labels on each pipe (necessary, given the pipes would now be exposed for workers – especially one that carried water, and could potentially be very hot or very cold).

After a few hours, we finished our pipe marking and moved all of the machines into position, but still had other items in our sort piles to deal with. Luckily, we’d created a pile for rarely used items and never-used/throwaway items in addition to our daily use ones. This made it relatively easy to take each item and either throw it out or put it back on the floor. In the case of the rarely used items, we simply moved them to a storage closet and – voila! – just like that, we had a bunch of newly opened space on the floor.

The Finishing Touches

Because, if we did our jobs correctly, the equipment would not be moving for a long time and would remain in its new (and more efficient!) formation, we also wanted to take the day to make other improvements. One of these included taking an Industrial Applicator and floor tape and making new walking lanes. We also removed the old scuffed painted lines and replaced them with the same floor marking tape.

In this particular factory, small John Deere gators were used to move parts from the end of the assembly line to our sales floor, which was near the beginning (highly inefficient). After the project, and the resulting change in position of our start and end points, we were able to actually eliminate the need for these vehicles. While a few employees lamented no longer getting to zip around in the small trucks, removing the need for moving vehicles in an environment with employees moving about on foot is always a boon to safety.

Applying Safety to Your Next LEAN Project

Throughout the course of the two days we took to complete the project, we were able to shore up a number of safety risks as a result of our lean/5S project. One of the keys to doing this successfully is to not be in a rush during the actual project – if you slow down between the stages of a continuous improvement project, you’ll catch the other things that need fixing. Moving something that’s been in the same place for a while? Think about cleaning the space it used to occupy. Re-organizing machinery? Inspect it for defects or possible areas where guards could be replaced or added to make the equipment safer.

While applying this technique to your business or industry will likely be a slightly different breed, the fundamentals hold true and the more you practice the more you will see safety and efficiency really do get along quite nicely, given the proper encouragement.

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