The performance-punishing nature of poor workplace design is a persistent issue filled with musculoskeletal injuries and rising medical care costs. Many manufacturing and industrial companies attempt continuous improvement techniques to drive quality and reduce cost. A well-structured ergonomics initiative can be a powerful accelerator to both reduce costly musculoskeletal disorders and create rapid improvements in productivity.
Continuous improvement succeeds best on the notion that every employee is responsible for identifying and acting on opportunities for enhancing processes. It’s a powerful concept that can result in significant improvements in the short term and dramatic progress over time.
It’s also a powerful concept that can result in chaos. To be effective, your organization must move toward common goals at an agreed upon pace. One of the biggest barriers to achieving this simple synchronization is the verbiage used by different departments to identify their functions.
“We do safety,” says one. “Well, we do quality,” says another. “Yeah, well, we do order fulfillment,” says a third.
These old silos and job definitions will not let a company be agile enough to optimize the benefits of continuous improvement. In the ideal, everyone works on safety, everyone pursues quality and everyone assures order fulfillment.
The reality of continuous improvement is that a person’s job description is not a guarantee of future employment. Rather, the key is an employee’s ability to engage in daily improvement from multiple perspectives, accruing multiple benefits. Employees depend on ideas generated at the shop-floor level rather than pie-in-the-sky strategic business plans generated from 30,000 feet.
Gen. Colin Powell has a lifetime of experience in leadership in demanding situations. He always is clear that people closest to the frontlines should not be second guessed by people sitting in offices. “The commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is wrong, unless proved otherwise,” Powell said.
He echoed many of the earlier thoughts of lean manufacturing guru Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. “In our factories, we start our kaizen (continuous improvement) efforts by looking at the way our people do their work,” Ohno said.
Two leaders, worlds apart, recognized the essence of continuous improvement and achieving excellence: Sustainable gains cannot be achieved unless people on the front line/shop floor lead the improvement process.
The 30-Inch View
In their own words, Powell and Ohno are talking about what I refer to as the “30-inch view” of people and performance. At 30 inches – roughly the length of a worker’s arm, or the distance between a worker and his or her workstation – issues are dealt with conclusively on a one-by-one basis. At 30 inches, people converse, reach for tools and sit at computers. Unfortunately, many employees face multiple barriers to productivity, quality and safety within their 30-inch range of control.
Beyond 30 inches, people have difficulty reading, hearing, speaking and working. At more than 30 inches away, problems become less intimate and appear to be someone else’s responsibility.
With a 30-inch view on continuous improvement, the value of ergonomics to safety, quality, production and the ability to meet customer needs is evident.
When everyone in a company understands that value is added on the shop floor, not around fancy meeting tables, then that company is able to leverage its continuous improvement effort over an entire plant population and the 220-plus days that people work in a year. This is how Toyota, widely regarded as one of the world’s best companies with world-class facilities and processes, still implements more than 1 million improvements every year.
To be successful on such a scale, companies must overcome significant hurdles. But the good news is that when implemented correctly, continuous improvement becomes self-sustaining. When the shop floor drives and achieves visible gains (visible from 30 inches away, for example) on a daily basis, it is motivating and builds teamwork, resulting in even more improvement activities. Shop floor employees drive continuous improvement in numerous organizations in North America and companies benefit from the effort every day.
A 30-inch view of people and performance can accelerate a transformation to a continuous improvement culture. Three key elements to consider are:
- Eliminate pain and fatigue as a barrier to engagement.
- Design for human performance.
- Establish shop floor ownership with respectful engagement.
The Truth About Pain and Fatigue
Pain and fatigue are a daily burden for many in the work force. With good ergonomics, you can systematically decrease the amount of pain and fatigue that people experience at work. Pain is a barrier to pride in workmanship and it reduces the willingness to communicate. Workers in pain are unable to focus their attention on finding and acting on opportunities for improvement. Healthy people perform better than people who are sick and tired.
Typically, up to one-half of office workers and well more than half of all production workers routinely experience job-related discomfort. One workplace study conducted by CTD News of more than 13,000 office workers found that 16 percent reported being in extreme pain at the end of the work day. When it comes to physically strenuous jobs on the production floor, the numbers are even more worrisome.
Pain and fatigue are natural outcomes of jobs that are designed outside known human limits (reach distances, applied forces, manual handling requirements, etc.). Workplace ergonomics strives to fit the job to the worker – both “built in” through the application of ergonomics design guidelines and “bolt on” through ergonomics risk identification and reduction.
In the short term, anyone who is distracted by pain simply cannot focus on improving anything except reducing the pain. In the longer term, pain from soft tissue damage (such as when poor ergonomics contributes to work-related musculoskeletal disorders) is accompanied by the release of cytokines in the blood stream. Cytokines are a known contributor to depression and malaise.
When employees are so distracted by pain that they cannot focus on their jobs, they often suffer from the modern malaise of “on-site absenteeism”; workers don’t have to be home to be absent.
As more jobs are created in the service sector and the manufacturing sector veers from manual, high-volume production jobs, on-site absenteeism and the associated discretionary productivity become a huge financial sink hole. Effectively, the profit a company makes will be dwarfed by the amount of productivity that is at the discretion of its work force. A company may measure the wounded and maimed on its OSHA log, but we must not forget that pain and the cytokines also are measured on the bottom line.
Workplace Design and Productivity
Workplace productivity is directly tied to workplace design. This is most evident when we examine production jobs – jobs where there is a measurable output to employee actions, such as manufacturing, assembly and warehousing tasks.
Barriers to comfort also are barriers to productivity. Ergonomic risk factors also are time and motion constraints. It’s that simple – anytime you have to work in an awkward posture or exert excessive force, you are compromising both comfort and productivity. When the postures and forces are severe enough that they increase ergonomic risk, they also increase the time necessary to complete the task.
For example, an assembly job that requires operators to reach to the floor for their parts will require a few more seconds than one that delivers the parts within easy reach. A job that requires an assembly to be manually force-fit will require a few more seconds than one in which the assembly can be dropped in place. Not coincidentally, these are the same jobs that are linked to back injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders. When you introduce lean improvements over the entire job cycle and the entire shift, the improvements can be dramatic. It is not uncommon for companies to realize 20 to 30 percent improvements in productivity from good ergonomic job design.
A real-life example comes from a small manufacturing facility in Wisconsin. As production of a particular product ramped up, operators were complaining of sore wrists related to manually threading components together. A tool was developed to assist the operator with the threading task. As a result, output increased 15 percent while also relieving the operators’ sore wrists.
Another real-life example comes from a 160-person manufacturing plant in Almont, Mich. The company had identified a five-person work cell as its leading injury area with 10 recordable incidents in 1 year alone. The company identified and implemented 12 low-cost, high-impact ergonomics improvements, which reduced ergonomic risks and drove injuries to zero within 2 years. In addition, the output of the cell increased by 25 percent with no additional staffing.
In short, ergonomics links safety and productivity, and often improves them simultaneously.
The Lasting Power of Respectful Engagement
The vast majority of workers are smart, well trained and motivated to do a good job. They are knowledgeable about how to increase efficiency and quality. They want to work smarter, not harder. They don’t mind a fast pace as long as it’s a better way to work.
So why do continuous improvement initiatives often fall short of their goals and fail to keep employees engaged? One common reason is a lack of demonstrated respect. Too often, a continuous improvement team informs operators about what is going to happen to them, disrupts their daily routines in the name of improvement and then retreats to an air-conditioned conference room to figure out their next big idea. As a result, many “improvements,” even when made with an eye on the 30-inch view, are reversed seconds after the team moves out of the work cell.
To be effective, continuous improvement cannot be done to people. It must be done with them. Ask operators to identify opportunities to improve their jobs. Arm them with well-conceived ergonomic assessment tools. Make them part of the continuous improvement team and encourage them to act. In fact, ergonomics can be the key to opening up a whole new dimension to continuous improvement, driven by the shop floor.
Respectful engagement is durable and will help companies through some otherwise unmanageable problems. It is one of the most important elements in an ergonomics program designed to reduce workplace injuries and on-site absenteeism, and accelerate improvements in productivity and profitability.
M. Franz Schneider, CEO of Humantech Inc. of Ann Arbor, Mich., is an internationally recognized expert in human performance. Active in the field of applied ergonomics and engineering for over two decades, his experience ranges from the development of training and OSHA compliance programs to total ergonomics program management. Schneider has two bachelor of science degrees – in physiology and systems engineering – from State University of New York. He obtained a master’s of science degree in ergonomics from the University of Guelph in Canada. He is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society and the American Society of Safety Engineers.