Picture-Perfect Plant Safety

Aug. 1, 2000
Experts agree that the Japanese concept of the visual workplace improves safety, overall worker protection and plant efficiency.

The idea seems simple enough. Improve safety, efficiency and plant organization by eliminating waste. Many companies may think everyday housekeeping efforts can accomplish this goal. But ask yourself this question: Can any employee in any department in your plant find whatever he needs to do his job in 30 seconds or less? If not, your plant may be in need of an organizational concept called the visual workplace (VW).

The visual workplace is a Japanese method of plant organization that improves safety and overall worker production. It is based on strict standards of organization and orderliness, with a place for everything and everything in its place. Those standards are created through a variety of visual cues and color-coded guides that identify where work materials should be stored to eliminate clutter. When the workplace is clean and well-organized, the result is a safer, more efficient plant. It may sound like industrial housekeeping, but it's much more. It is a pack rat's worst nightmare.

"One of the biggest problems for most manufacturing plants is clutter and disorganization. It makes people search for things, wastes time and presents a variety of hazards," said Brett Balkema, president of Lean Concepts, a Muskegon, Mich.-based company consulting in the methods of VW. "Waste reduction is the ultimate goal of the visual workplace."

In addition to waste reduction, the VW concept focuses on ways of eliminating motion for greater productivity. When workers are in motion searching for tools or items they need to do their jobs, they are not working.

Gwendolyn Galsworth, president of Quality Methods International (QMI) in Dayton, Ohio, has consulted with companies on the VW concept in the United States for 20 years.

"If you search for the source or cause of motion, you find a strong link to information deficits in the workplace," Galsworth said. "You spend time moving around and looking for something because you don't have the information you need to find it. Visual systems are designed to put an end to these deficits."

Through visual information sharing in the way of such items as signage, charts and color coding, employees get the critical information they need to do their jobs quickly, safely and at the point of use.

"Any employee ought to be able to find anything they need to do the job for the area they are in within 30 seconds or less," said Charles Skinner, management consultant with Productivity, a Portland, Ore.-based company that helps plants implement the VW process. "Every employee knows the who, what, where, when, why and how of everyone else's work area through the concept of the visual workplace."

Implementing the VW process, however, is not simply a matter of putting up signage. Visual cues might get you started, but they will not work by themselves.

Those who specialize in this practice say that companies achieve the most success by implementing the pillars of the VW concept, known as 5S + 1, throughout their facilities.

The five S's stand for sort through and sort out, scrub, secure safety, select locations, and set locations.

We talked to several companies that have implemented VW at their facilities to see just how the 5S + 1 process works.

The Five S's

Sort Out. Sorting through and organizing items (S1) in the work area is the first element of VW. By identifying what items are used in the work area, labeling those items and putting them in the proper place, excess waste is removed. Certain methods associated with the VW concept can be used to help eliminate clutter and unneeded items in the work area, such as the Red Tag System.

Richard Murphy, health, safety and environmental leader for Allied Signal's Honeywell manufacturing and systems plant in Tucson, Ariz., explained how his company used the Red Tag System to complete S1.

Murphy started by designating a specific area in the plant as the red tag area where unneeded materials would eventually be placed.

"Each department red-tagged the items in their area that didn't really seem to have a home. Then we put those items in one area that was similar to a lost and found for unidentified objects," he said.

Those items stayed in the department's red tag area so employees had the opportunity to decide whether they needed the item. Unclaimed items were thrown out.

"This process makes eliminating the waste a peaceful process for everyone," Murphy said. "The workers know that the items there will be thrown out after two weeks."

Scrub. S2 is really about cleaning. The idea is to free all of the work area's equipment from oil and dirt. It is obvious that this process would include the use of rags, soap and mops, but it also requires investigative techniques.

Experts said it is not only important to clean up existing dirt, but to find out where the dirt is coming from and how it can be eliminated. This part of the process, Skinner said, involves elimination and inspection. It is important to make sure that everything looks the way it is supposed to after the cleaning process is through to prevent anything from getting in the way of continuing with the VW process.

Secure Safety. The 5S+1 principle allows employees to work in a more organized and clean environment, but it also makes that environment safer. Through the VW process, employees identify the obvious and not-so-obvious safety hazards in their work environment.

After employees have eliminated all of the items they don't need in their work areas, they have to make sure that what is left isn't going to hurt them.

At Dennison Hydraulics, a machinery and assembly operation in Marysville, Ohio, safety hazards are fairly minor, such as slips and falls. Paul Baker, senior industrial engineer at Dennison, said the VW process has allowed even those simple hazards to become more noticeable.

"With this method in place, you begin to notice hazards you didn't notice or didn't think were important before. Everything needs to have a home. Therefore, this eliminates a lot of the tripping and slipping hazards we use to have around here," Baker said.

Select and Set Locations. After determining what items are needed, locations must be set for those items. Where should those items go to reduce waste and motion?

At the Allied facility, for example, there was a large quantity of parts piled up in the repair and overhaul area of the plant that made it difficult to find equipment. Selecting a location and identifying the location for those parts made it much easier for workers to find what they needed.

"Something as simple as taking photos of the parts and putting them into a binder so someone could locate a part if given the corresponding number on the shelf saved time and made things more organized," Murphy said.

Once locations are selected for items, that location must be identified. The location is given an address and a label that corresponds with the address and the label of the item so there is no confusion about where something belongs.

"The visual manner is 20 times more effective than the written word," Lean Concepts' Balkema said. "If you put words into photographs, you have made it much easier for people to do the job."

Having specific locations for items also eliminates a large amount of search time for employees and increases productivity.

Experts said a stranger should be able to go into a specific area and pull enough information from the environment to know what's going on.

Before the VW process at Dennison Hydraulics, transferred employees or new hires usually would enter an area where only the person who worked there before knew where to find things.

VW cut down on the time it took to adjust employees to a new environment simply by the identification and location of required tools.

"Now when people are reassigned in areas, they don't need to take the time to figure out where everything is located. The time it takes to learn a new job is accelerated because you are already acclimated to the area," Baker said.

Employee-Driven Process

Simply implementing the 5S + 1 principles does not ensure that the VW process will be successful. That depends on employee involvement.

How do you get employees to buy into the concept? Highlighting the benefits of the process is one way.

For one thing, VW experts said, employees soon discover that the VW method makes their jobs easier.

Tracey Paveling is a consultant with Modavi, a Scarborough, Ontario-based group that helps companies implement VW practices. Paveling is facing the challenge of training VW to employees at the Trailmobile plant in Mississauga, Ontario.

"Whenever you try to bring in a new practice, a segment of the population is always going to be against it," Paveling said. "You have to win over the people who have no opinion in order for it to work. Employees tend to be a little reluctant when first introduced to the method. As employees begin to see how the process makes their lives easier and helps with productivity, even the doubters come around."

One way to win over employees is to create a showcase area, an area of the plant that has adopted the VW practice. That specific area becomes a display for other employees to see what their departments could look like if the concept was used.

Dennison Hydraulics' Baker has found that employees are most impressed with the concept when they complete a showcase area.

"The first showcase area the employees set up was enough of a demonstration for the other employees," said Baker, a member of the lead team responsible for employee training in the concept of VW. "When people saw the results in this area, they realized that this does work."

Although training procedures vary from plant to plant, taking time away from production to train is a concern for any company adopting the VW method. Experts say that to gain the end result, however, companies have to invest the time it takes to properly train employees and implement this process.

Most companies find ways to work around production schedules so employees can participate and still get their jobs done. Management support for training time is beneficial in scheduling training.

At Dennison Hydraulics, management has placed such a value on the VW method that production stops during the week for an hour so all employees can work on 5S + 1.

"This time is one-40th of our production week, but management has seen the value they have gotten back from the investment in the process. It is definitely time well spent to them, not lost," Baker said.

Sustaining and Getting Started

Sustaining the VW method, the +1 portion of the concept, is ultimately what makes it work. "You can have a perfect visual workplace and go out of business if you don't support the business of the business," Productivity's Skinner said.

Creating groups of employees to help drive the VW process is paramount. Implementing a shop floor steering committee/team helps to drive the process. This committee/team motivates and trains employees and helps them to sustain the goal of VW. Steering team members should be five to eight shop floor workers pulled from targeted areas in the plant.

Whatever way a company decides to do training and implementation, experts warn that the VW process is not a quick-fix approach. It takes a significant amount of time. "I usually tell a company they are going to become 10 [percent] to 30 percent more efficient with this process," Balkema said. "That doesn't mean they will see changes in productivity. However, changes will be more evident in things such as reduced lost time. Companies will ultimately get out of it what they put into it."

Discipline and commitment is required to be successful. Once the VW process is undertaken, however, the success rate is high. Experts commented that there isn't any organization that doesn't need this process. "This may seem like common sense. However, what is common sense for one person isn't common sense for another," Skinner said.

It's easy to determine if the VW concept is right for your company, Galsworth said. "If your organization is having lots of meetings, high employee turnover, communication can only be done face to face and you have lots of accidents, you may want to consider VW."

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

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