Monday, September 29, 2014

Lean Safety Gemba Rambling

In the UK walking in the countryside is often referred to as rambling. There are trails and paths throughout the UK that ramblers can follow. Unlike in the US where hiking trails are almost exclusively on public land these meandering “rights of way” crisscross the terrain through private and public lands. Gates and stairs allow access over and through the fences and hedges that line most pastures and fields so that these historical routes can be traversed unimpeded.

On my recent trip to the UK my host had arranged for us to spend the night in a village just a few miles from Stonehenge. Both the visitor’s center and the world heritage prehistoric monument site were scheduled to close shortly after we arrived. Then as we drove down a gravel road to get a view of the monument we noticed a path leading to the Stonehenge site. Someone quickly informed us that the site, and the path leading to it, was now closed for the day. Our disappointment did not last long for he also shared the fact that just a short distance down the gravel road was a gate through which we could enter a sheep pasture. Once inside we could follow the unmarked rambler's path to a spot from which we could view and photograph Stonehenge. Unlike all of the tourists who had paid to walk a different path to view Stonehenge we rambled along a free access path.

Employee engagement is the only path a company can follow to achieve lean (continuous improvement) success. The definition of lean, to reduce the delivery cycle time to customer by eliminating waste from a business' processes, is simple to understand yet oh so difficult to implement. It is difficult because success requires the business culture to change. Much like rambling the meandering trails that crisscross the UK a business must define its own, at times unclear, path to lean cultural success. No clear straight path exists because lean is a philosophy and each business must struggle with the application of the philosophy. Therefore most businesses get lost on their lean journey.

My journey across the UK provided me the opportunity to visit four manufacturing sites. All were on the arduous lean journey with each tackling their cultural challenges in their own way using a variety of lean tools. At each site I led a lean safety gemba walk and on each one of them my fellow lean ramblers discovered the secret to employee engagement and culture change. Simply engage the people doing the work in honest trust building conversations about how to make their work safer and easier. Then work with them to implement those changes.

A few days before my departure for the UK I had the opportunity to facilitate a lean safety training event for a construction company. A company executive who attended the training and participated in the gemba walk sent me this feedback the week after the event.

"I, too, learned a lot. I've read several books about lean (but not nearly enough) and I've attend a variety of seminars and workshops, but you opened up a new perspective for me. The idea of recognizing safety risks as opportunities for lean improvement is unique. By making a work activity safer we also make the work more productive. I think most lean practitioners do the reverse - they look for waste in the production cycle, fix that, and then trust that the process improvement also makes the work safer. But having a worker-centric point of view makes the whole lean improvement idea more personal and grounded in ethics, which makes sense to me."

Lesson learned: Ethical, people centric leaders will lead their businesses to lean success while profit centric, cost cutting leaders will not. Even more important is that at the end of their working career they will be able look back and feel good about all of the people they have touched. An executive at an Australian company, where I facilitated a lean safety workshop just a few weeks ago, send me an email in which he stated the event had been a “watershed moment” for him. He made the personal shift toward people centric leadership. My goal to change the world, or at least how the world views workplace safety, is attainable but slow it its progress. Slow because I am convincing one leader at a time.

I am already beginning to schedule training events for 2015. If you would like to schedule a lean safety gemba walk through your facility let me know. I can guarantee, as we ramble, your view of workplace safety will be changed forever.

Cheers mates. Stay safe.

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