Monday, June 25, 2012

The Power of Employee Engagement

To me the most important of the three pillars of the Toyota Production System (TPS) is the third - respect for people. I intentionally dedicated my book, Lean Safety, to “those who work with their hands” because they are the ones put in harm’s way each and every day. I also firmly believe that engaging these same people in the continual improvement of the business at which they work is the key to lean success. My beliefs are reaffirmed every time I have the opportunity to facilitate a safety kaizen event as I did last week.

The NWHPEC (Northwest High Performance Enterprise Consortium), located in the Portland, Oregon area, is composed of a number of member companies who are on the lean journey together. They learn from and challenge each other while sharing the cost of training and educational events. I was invited to facilitate a 2-day Safety Kaizen event at a member site located in Portland. Attending the event were thirty individuals representing 10 different companies.

The first day began with a welcome from the host site and the self-introduction of all attendees. To prep the participants they were given a brief overview of the Lean Safety concepts before being organized into six safety kaizen teams. Each team selected a team leader and was assigned a process expert, an individual who worked in the work area to be improved, as a member of their team. They then went to six different work centers to observe individuals working with the common goal of reducing the risk of soft tissue injuries.

During safety kaizen events no stop watches are used to record process step cycle times. For a team charged with reducing the injury risks for those performing the work tasks a stop watch is as useless as a snow shovel in the tropics. Their success depended on their ability to observe and interact with the individual workers and not to just observe and analyze the work process. That is what occurred. All six teams engaged the individuals working in the work-centers in safety improvement. Invariably as a kaizen team implements changes that result in reduced injury risk they also positively impact (reduce) work process cycle times. Safety kaizen teams prove over and over that making a task safer and easier also makes it quicker. They validate the key concept of Lean Safety – you can get lean by focusing on safety! And by focusing on the safety of the individual you can engage them in work process change – the key to lean success. When asked to change we all want the “what’s in it for me” question answered. Making someone’s job safer and easier is a clear answer.

In both the event wrap up meeting, during which each team presented their story, and in the event satisfaction survey conducted by the NWHPEC manager, almost everyone commented on the level of employee engagement that they witnessed. They all gained an understanding that unless all of a company’s employees are engaged (feel like they are making a difference at work) a company will never be successful at lean. Lean is not a program – it is a way of thinking. Engaging the workforce in change requires them to change how they think. Thinking differently is an important attribute of the required culture change that signifies lean success.

Lean Safety events are either scheduled or being planned in New Zealand, Australia, China, Ukraine, Northern Iowa, Chicago and the Indianapolis area. Please contact me if you want to learn more about engaging your employees in the type of safety improvement that will move your lean efforts forward. Stay safe.