Your Only As Good—and Safe—As Your Process

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by Phil La Duke

Several weeks ago I posted an article that asked you to take a new look at safety. I asked you to consider that safety isn’t something that happens to workers or that doesn’t happen to workers, rather it is an indicator of the efficiency and effectiveness of one of five basic business elements: competency, process capability, management of hazards and risk, accountability, and engagement. In that post I explored the relationship between competency and safe outcomes, and in this week’s post I would like to continue to explore safe outcomes as they pertain to process capability.

I should begin by precisely defining exactly what I mean by process capability. Process capability is the extent to which a process (i.e. an activity designed to produce a predictable desired outcome) as practiced varies from the specification. Your process is not deliberately designed to harm workers so by definition something has gone wrong when someone is injured. Process variability is seen as the principle enemy to efficiency by most process improvement; variability is deviation from the standard and this deviation means that the process is less predictable; the greater the variability the more unpredictable the results and the more hazardous the process.

There is variability in every process; even robots and the best automated equipment are incapable of returning the exact same result in every instance. Typically machine and equipment performance measured in its ability to meet specific limits. Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a discipline developed to improve process reliability (how consistently it performs within control limits) these and other tools can improve process capability and create safe outcomes.

There are obvious things that we can do to improve process capability. For starters, we can develop Standard Work Instructions (SWI). According to the Lean Institute, “Standardized work is one of the most powerful but least used lean tools.” Standard Work involves identifying and documenting the current best practice. In so doing, the organization can identify a) differences between how the work is actually performed and how it was designed, b) the safest way to do the job, and c) identify and document continuous improvements.

Once you have created SWIs you have the means to properly train new employees, evaluate the performance and skill level of existing employees and as I mentioned in the first in this series people who have the skills to do the job are better able to do it safely and correctly. What’s more SWIs allow worker input into workplace improvements. So many organizations have invested in half-baked safety systems that pay workers to watch other people work and provide feedback, why not have them do something productive instead, like…I don’t know…develop Safe Work Instructions?

Standard Work Instructions are more than merely operating instructions, but my intent here is not to give free consulting in Lean Principles. Sufficed to say that investing in standard work improves not only your process but produces safer outcomes. Standardized work isn’t just for manufacturing—it can be applied to everything from driving to dry cleaning—but it is seldom used for non-manufacturing processes even in manufacturing, which is disappointing. Too often organizations resist standardizing non-production work by claiming that it is too difficult. If that were truly the case than how do we ever train anyone to do it?

In my experience a fair amount of workers will resist the very concept of Standardized Work, once when I was teaching a workshop in standardized work one worker indignantly told me that nobody was gonna tell him where he was going to put his (expletive) toolbox. So it’s not that easy to implement standards, of course, I was able to turn it around and win him over by telling him that he was going to tell US where his toolbox should go.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) is another great tool for influencing safe outcomes, while the snake oil salesmen will tell you that you don’t need to invest in capital, machines wear out, technology advances, and the design, care, and appropriate maintenance of your equipment is essential. It is outright stupid to believe that you can keep workers safe using outdated, poorly functioning, and wildly unpredictable equipment and, for that matter, battered and crumbling facilities.

Another Lean tool that has a direct influence on safer outputs is 5S, but then I’ve already written ad nauseum on the relationship between workplace organization/housekeeping and its relationship to workplace safety, and given the criticisms of late that I tend to repeat myself, I won’t go into here.

All the best tools and robust processes are of little value, however, if no one follows them. The second element that you have to consider in how process capability influences safer outcomes is “process discipline”, that is, the extent to which people work within the process. We tend to construct safety controls based on what people are supposed to do, and often forget that what happens on paper isn’t necessarily what happens in the workplace. As variable as equipment can be, this variation pales in comparison to the variability of human behavior. No amount of training, hackneyed theories, or the dubious claims from soft-headed safety gurus will change the fact that human behavior is incredibly complex, unpredictable, and rife with variability. This having been said, we need to stop trying to reengineer the human brain and start building engineering controls that protect workers when they make mistakes or even deliberately take unnecessary risks or behave recklessly. We need to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, whether it be human error or poor choices, nobody should have to die because they chose poorly. I know there are people out there who feel differently (shamefully even some people within the safety practice), people who believe that some people, because of their poor decisions deserve to be injured or killed, but for me, killing workers is still bad business.

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