Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Employee Engagement Driven by a Philosophy of Continuous Improvement

When building new facilities or defining new processes hazards can be keep out of, or at the least minimized in the work environment. In reality most HSE professionals are dealing with old facilities and long standing processes in which risks and hazards currently exist. Similarly, the current culture (how people think, act and interact) of an existing business is often saddled with people problems and challenges that management has to deal with daily. A common solution to both risk reduction and a cultural re-direction is a new management philosophy grounded in the dual beliefs that the customer is first and each and every employee should be engaged in business improvement. That continuous improvement philosophy is commonly called “Lean.”

What is Lean? It is not a program but a philosophy. It is a way of thinking and seeing the world. Management teams all over the world want to improve the businesses they manage. Lean provides a structured approach that is simple to understand but difficult to implement. Difficult to implement because it requires most managers to change their style of leadership while engaging all of their reports in a journey of workplace culture change. Not many managers have the stomach to lead this rigorous journey but those who do are unique. They understand that a business must focus on customer – not profitability. They clearly understand that if you have satisfied customers profitability will follow.

Many businesses are still managed in a hierarchical top down directive fashion which relies on layers of managers telling their reports what to do. Traditional compliance safety management is a mirror reflection of these directive management practices. It relies on EHS professionals often telling people what to do and policing them to ensure compliance. Progressive businesses that utilize a lean or continuous improvement approach to management have come to the realization that a new style of leadership is necessary. A people centric approach to leadership that requires managers to ask the right questions rather than have the right answers. Managers must extend trust to others so they return trust. It is a team building exercise which develops a workforce focused on customer and continuous improvement because it makes sense to them. It makes sense because management has allowed them to be involved and engaged in business improvement. They go home at the end of their workday feeling as if they have made a difference. They feel empowered.

How can EHS professionals take advantage of and support this type of cultural shift in a business? First they must themselves become proponents of this new leadership style. In this era of lifelong learning they must start by personally accepting the responsibility to understand Lean and how this way of thinking can positively benefit both them and their business. Armed with this new understanding they can now start to give focus to the continuous improvement of the EHS processes they manage. In addition they can take advantage of the new switched on workforce by engaging them in EHS improvement activities.

Most of the lean tools used to drive cycle time reduction from business processes can also be used to drive continuous improvement safety. Some examples are safety kaizens blitz events and safety gemba walks. A traditional kaizen blitz is a structured, clearly defined multi-day rapid continuous improvement activity that engages a cross-functional team in the pursuit of cycle time gains. EHS professionals can use that same structured framework to challenge a team of hourly workers to reduce the risk of soft tissue injuries or their exposure to hazards. By facilitating safety kaizen events an EHS professional can engage and empower those who do the work to make a safety difference in their own work area. When this is done effectively it builds trust and starts to shift the ownership of safety to those who perform the work.

Safety gemba walks are educational events intended to help others see and understand continuous improvement safety. Gemba, a Japanese word, refers to “where the work is done.” Traditional safety walks through a work area focus on non-compliance while safety gemba walks focus on pro-active safety improvement. By simply observing people at work and engaging them in conversations about the body positioning required to perform the work hazards can be identified and eliminated. Just as in the kaizen blitz events the key to success is the engagement of the workers in the identification and elimination of the hazards. That key understanding is what differentiates Lean, or continuous improvement safety from traditional compliance safety.

This approach benefits EHS professionals in many ways. Their organizations will view them as even more valuable for they are:
1. Reducing cycle times of business processes by focusing the workforce on safety improvement.
2. Building trust between the workforce and management.
3. Engaging others is EHS activities.
4. Proactively reducing the possibility of injuries.

This is a proactive risk reduction approach driven by continuous improvement and should be the model for every EHS manager for just managing EHS compliance is no longer good enough.