June 2015

Lean in Action: How to Stop Fighting Fires and Start Solving Systemic Safety Problems that Prevent Lean Processes 

Editors Note: This article helps managers and hourly workers learn how to remove the resistance that prevents people from starting on continual improvement and lean practices which are directly affected when employee accidents occur.  Mr. Smith advocates a business cannot be lean if it is not safe. He believes employee injuries are the worst form of waste in any business. Time, money, morale, productivity, quality and respect for management are lost and these wastes cannot be recovered once an accident happens. 

By Thomas A. Smith, CHCM, CPSM

Organizations do not always behave rationally. This is a fundamental reason why companies often have more problems to deal with than the money, resources and time available to solve them. To counteract this dilemma, managers tend to prioritize the problems they will address, based on what’s going on at the moment. They are constantly “juggling” their time and resources to keep production and/or service running smoothly. They react to problems by either taking immediate action or delaying action until they have more time to work on them. Often, unsolved problems of today evolve into problems of tomorrow, either not totally addressed or completely ignored. 

We call this “firefighting.” Over the
lastthirtyyears I’ve found managers are often trapped in firefighting routines, but don’t care to openly admit it. Instead they offer examples of being proactive, such as asking employees for their input about safety when ordering new machinery. But the final decision regarding the implementation of these and similar suggestions or requests rests with supervisors, engineering, and finance departments. Unfortunately, the safety of the workers doing the job starts off as the number one priority but it but fades rapidly when production starts. Usually, the results we see are patches or quick fixes, instead of finding permanent solutions to chronic issues. The best way to achieve a continual improvement of safety is to solve chronic problems first. Safety professionals admit more gains would be made if they did this. Yet they do not, or cannot change their daily work routines, things required to achieve lean processes. The result – “firefighting.”

Change Your Systems 

How will you change your daily work activities from firefighting to solving systemic problems? Problems such as injuries that prevent companies from being lean.

First, scrutinize what you do now and determine how much of it is “firefighting.” Then determine how much value is added to safety performance from your work. In his book The Fifth Discipline, author Peter Senge points out when you push a system it pushes back. The traditional safety management system of personnel, safety training, safety inspections, safety audits, accident investigations,
reprimands and incentives are the dominant activities of safety managers. It is safe to say, they won’t give them up easily even though much better methods are proven and available. Safety managers will defend their reactive management system with vigor. They do it by rationalizing they are mandated so by either top management or outside regulatory safety agencies. 

Fortunately for customers of all kinds of products today, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Dr. Joseph Juran, and
other quality improvement Gurus’ saw the fallacy of depending on such rationalization. They knew continual improvement of quality cannot result from following outdated standards or misguided mandated management policies. 

Systems thinking helps people discover control of a system is achieved through freedom — not enforcement. People that work in the system must be given autonomy to critically analyze, study, change and improve it on a daily basis. (Like the human immune system.) This is in direct contrast to the objective of traditional safety management which is to maintain the status quo, i.e. meet safety specifications or standards through education and enforcement. This system ultimately tells employees to leave their brains in the parking lot because when it comes to safety, they aren’t going to need them at work. Management has done all the thinking and uses rules, regulations, compliance and enforcement to decide what’s important and how to solve safety problems. This approach did not produce continual improvement of quality and it doesn’t in safety. 

Shift your focus to your immediate safety customers. Work to “prevent” fires, not put them out.

Apply the “customer” principle to safety. Customers are defined as someone who benefits from your product or service. Employees are obviously the customers of safety management. Most successful organizations have learned the customer is King. This principle should be applied in safety management. 

All customers have needs and expectations. When they are waiting for their expectations and needs to be fulfilled, they are actually a supplier of information to the manufacturer or service provider. Workers are an important part of the customer-supplier safety chain. 

Dr. Deming warned us not to expect instant pudding when it comes to making the transformation from Quantity management to a Quality management system. At the risk of making it sound too easy here are Deming’s fourteen points adopted for safety. They will help you make the transformation to continual renewal and improvement of safety performance. If you can do this, you can transform your company’s safety efforts and get sound, measurable results leading to lean processes with minimal injuries to your people. 

Safety Management Principles:The 14 points - The Road Map for Leaders of Safety:

1. Create a constancy of purpose. Work constantly to reduce scrap, waste, rework, and accidents to improve the competitive position of the company. Top Management is responsible to all employees in this effort. This responsibility cannot be abdicated to the workers.
2. Adopt the new management philosophy.
Accidents are the same as producing scrap. We can no longer live with commonly accepted levels of employee injuries, delays, mistakes and defective or improper equipment. Work to satisfy the needs and expectations of your internal (workers) and external customers every day. The new safety philosophy is, the vast majority of accidents are caused by the system, not the actions of workers. 
3. Cease dependence on mass safety inspections. These are after-the-fact activity in the name of safety. Instead require statistical evidence that safety is built-in and eliminate the need for firefighting routines.
4. Find problems. It is Management’s job to continually work on the system. (People, materials, methods, machines, environment.) Management can improve the system by identifying problems, with the help of all employees. 
5. Use teams. For decision-making (consensus) and problem solving of systemic safety problems. Common causes are buried deep in your system and usually beyond the ability of one individual to understand and solve. Teams outperform individuals when it comes to problem solving and are necessary if real solutions are to be discovered.
6. Provide leadership at all levels. The responsibility of supervision must be changed from managing the numbers to being leaders, facilitator’s, coaches and counselors of work systems. A manager’s job is to remove the barriers around the workers and safety teams that prevent them from doing their jobs safely. This requires leadership.
7. Responsiveness. Management must create a system that responds immediately to reports from teams about barriers that prevent continual improvement of safety. Work on chronic problems such as; superficial training, persistent and consistent accident frequencies, improper maintenance, faulty equipment, and unclear operational definitions of “safe.”
8. Drive out fear. Insure that everyone can work effectively and safely for the company. Eliminate the use of reprimands and incentives (bribes) as management tools to control the actions of employees. Fear destroys intrinsic motivators. All human beings have intrinsic motivations to be safe. Build on that. 
9. Break down barriers. All departments must learn to cooperate with each other so they can work together on solving the problems of common and special causes of injuries. Using operational definitions of what is “safe” will eliminate barriers between departments.
10. Allow process units and employees to set their own safety goals.
Eliminate management set objectives which are put forth in numerical quotas, incentive programs, posters, and safety slogans, none of these improve safety or the system. Self-set goals create individual ownership of safety. It creates mutual accountability where people hold themselves accountable for what they can control. 
11. Remove any barriers that would prevent the worker from working safely. Eliminate the need for making choices of “quality and production vs. safety.” All are important and none will be optimized if the other is ignored. Safety is the sum of the parts of your system plus the interactions of all parts of the system.
12. Instill pride and joy in work. Work to reduce turnover. Turnover devastates the quality, productivity and safety effort in all areas of a company. Work to put pride, joy and safety into all jobs.
13. Institute a vigorous program of education and retraining. Teach everyone in the company the new philosophy of continual renewal and improvement of performance. Especially for safety. 
14. Create a structure in Top Management and throughout your organization that will push every day on the above 13 points. 

Idealistic? Hardly! Far too many success stories prove quality and continual improvement management systems work. While a seemingly radical departure from the now century-old approach to traditional safety management, quality management in the accident prevention arena produces the same highly desirable results it has achieved in many other segments of industry. Imagine what your company would be like if it adopted the 14 points. Not just for safety but for all management activities!

Thomas A. Smith, CHCM, CPSM is President of Mocal, Inc., a Quality/Safety Management consulting firm located in Lake Orion, MI. He has worked with many Fortune 500 companies to help them apply continual improvement to safety management to aid in creating lean processes. He can be reached at (248) 391-1818,  or via email at 

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