Silo Thinking and Safety Problems: How Lean Can Go Wrong

In the latest issue of Target magazine from the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, our friend Karen Wilhelm – who writes the Lean Reflections blog – offers an interesting example of what she calls lean gone wrong.

In the article (not yet available online), she describes how an (unnamed) footwear manufacturer achieved great benefits in a factory in China by implementing lean improvements. Order-to-delivery lead times were cut dramatically, WIP was reduced significantly and quality improvement.

The improvements resulted in large part from creation of manufacturing cells, out of what had previously been batch processing in separate departments.

However, a joint U.S.-Chinese research team studied the impact of the change and found numerous safety problems.

Several of these had to do with people being too close to dangerous machines without proper protection. In my view, what Karen describes was evidence that silo thinking was still in evidence. For example, the operators of hot presses were protected from heat and noise. But those presses were now in a cell, near other machines. And the operators of those other machines were close enough to need protection as well – but didn’t have it.

Karen says the situation raises the question, “How can you screen potential suppliers before traveling halfway around the world to make a plant visit?” She then discusses efforts to develop an international safety standard.

That’s a good point. I would also focus on the always-challenging and too-often-ignored need to get companies to focus on the lean principle of respect for people. That usually refers to respecting the intelligence and creativity workers can bring to their jobs. However, I would suggest it also means showing respect for their working conditions, including safety.

Some people say the lean tool of 5S should really be 6S, with the sixth “S” being safety. But that’s too narrow, in my view. Safety should always be a concern, not just in regard to 5S.

Do you find that silo thinking remains even after setting up manufacturing cells? How do you make safety an integral part of a lean operation? Please share your experiences below.


Karen Wilhelm said...

Thanks for reading Target and my article. It's incredible to think that conditions like I described could develop in the name of lean, but it's true. Other examples of a callous disregard for people occur all the time in OSHA reports of serious violations.

But even those practicing with sincere respect for people need to keep safety at the top of their list of priorities.

OSHA and state safety agencies, plus companies like Liberty Mutual and organizations like the American Society of Safety Engineers, have so much to offer both manufacturing and non-manufacturing businesses, that there's no excuse for unsafe working conditions. Their professional expertise can be tapped for audits, and constant safety training should be the norm.

Thanks for reinforcing the message, Ralph.

Lester said...

To talk about moving machines around and creating a cell as Lean is to miss the point. What was being done was industrial engineering (and done poorly if safety was neglected). The Toyota Production System is based on Respect for People and that is not just missing outside the U.S.A., but also inside. There is very little true Lean (TPS) being done anywhere, and the reason manufacturers outsource to low wage, low rules countries is to take advantage of workers, not to make them safe. Karen's suggestion for a Global safety standard is good, but probably not likely to be seen anytime soon. More likely, we will see a continuing relaxation of safety as workers scramble just to have jobs.

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