Ergonomics and Manufacturing Excellence

Sept. 11, 2002
A systematic, data-driven approach to ergonomics can help you benefit from the drive for manufacturing excellence.

While health and safety has always been a dynamic and challenging field, individuals now are being asked to demonstrate cost savings with resources that are more limited than ever. Not all companies are experiencing layoffs in their EHS staff, but you can be sure the budgets for training and outside consultants are as thin as they have ever been.

How do companies meet the expectations of "doing more with less" in the health and safety field? One approach that has proven effective in scores of manufacturing companies is to leverage the efforts of ongoing improvement initiatives to accelerate ergonomics improvements. Generically referred to as "manufacturing excellence," these initiatives range from Lean Manufacturing to Six Sigma to Demand Flow Technology. The techniques may differ, but they all have a common goal: drive bottom-line improvements by working smarter.

Manufacturing excellence initiatives are how things get done in manufacturing today. If you want to tap into maintenance time to resolve a known ergonomics issue, the easiest path is through the Lean Manufacturing champions or Six Sigma black belts. If you want to modify a manufacturing process to reduce ergonomic risks, the simplest approach is to align with the Kaizen improvement team activities. Integrating your ergonomics efforts with these initiatives, however, means you have to ensure that your ergonomics process is systematic and data-driven.

Systematic Ergonomics

Manufacturing excellence initiatives do not tolerate opinion and intuition - decisions are formalized and projects are funded based on data analysis. Consequently, ergonomics initiatives that do not follow a formal risk management process are not credible to the Lean Manufacturing or Six Sigma communities.

Risk management in ergonomics is simple and straightforward: Identify ergonomic issues, evaluate tasks associated with those issues, and control exposures where task requirements exceed human capabilities. There are numerous methods to complete each of these steps; the trick is finding methods that are effective and efficient in your work environment.

The most challenging part of ergonomics risk management is controlling exposures. Ergonomists know that engineering controls, or modifications to the workplace equipment and setup, are the most effective. Yet, funding to get these modifications implemented is often a roadblock. There are three factors critical to acquiring funds for ergonomic job improvements:

Engineering controls must demonstrate reduction in hazard exposures. This goes back to the fundamentals of data analysis. If you can't clearly define and quantify the problem, you can't prove your solution resolves it.

Focus on low-cost, high-impact improvements. Far too often, ergonomics initiatives become stalled by the "home run" solution when a series of "base hits" can be just as effective at a much lower cost.

Capture the benefits of improved human performance - not just health and safety gains - in your calculations. Ergonomics improvements costing hundreds of thousands of dollars are feasible if you can demonstrate that they will pay for themselves with specific, predictable cost reductions.

Demonstrating Value

A systematic, data-driven ergonomics process will be seen as credible to the Six Sigma black belt or Lean Manufacturing champion, but credibility alone isn't enough to get them to embrace ergonomics with enthusiasm. You must demonstrate a link between their goals and the benefits of improved ergonomics.

Manufacturing excellence initiatives must save the company money. This is their core mission, and it is expressed in their metrics. Yet, the goal for ergonomics is to reduce injuries and illnesses, an area that does not fall onto the metrics sheet.

How do you link ergonomics to Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma metrics? The answer typically lies in productivity and quality. In some cases, savings associated with workers' compensation are significant enough to warrant the involvement of these initiatives, but there is no sustainable opportunity for improvement. Once workers' compensation costs are minimized, additional cost savings in this area disappear. In contrast, productivity gains are durable; ergonomics improvements at the workstation level can translate into time savings at the work cell level ranging from 25 percent to 40 percent.

The link between improved ergonomics and productivity gains becomes clear when you follow a risk management process. Managing risks begins with the recognition of ergonomic issues, the hassles and barriers to productivity that are present in many manufacturing jobs. Eliminating these hassles naturally leads to a more productive workplace and improved employee morale. The link becomes even more evident when ergonomic evaluations identify specific task factors - forceful exertions, awkward postures and high rates of repetition - that contribute to ergonomic risks. These factors equate to point-of-motion constraints that directly interfere with production efficiencies. Specific improvements that reduce hazard exposures also reduce motion times and, when done correctly, impact productivity.

One of the critical factors in capturing productivity gains is an efficient time analysis method. Traditional, detailed approaches used by industrial engineers are time consuming and far too complex for

simple ergonomic improvements. Simplified methodologies specifically designed for justifying ergonomics projects, such as Humantech's STEP methodology, provide an elegant solution that is less accurate than core industrial engineering methods, but robust enough to support return-on-investment statements to achieve project funding.

Integrating with Manufacturing Excellence

A risk management approach can help you achieve credibility with the Lean Manufacturing champions and Six Sigma black belts, and demonstrating how ergonomics contributes to their goals will boost enthusiasm. The last piece to the puzzle is defining just how you tie the two together. Each manufacturing excellence initiative has its own strategies and tactics, ranging from training deployments to workplace improvement events to advanced statistical analysis. One element common to all is the need for a risk management data set to drive improvement activities. The following sections show how you can link key processes in Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma with your ergonomics activities.

Ergonomics and Lean Manufacturing

A key process to Lean Manufacturing is the accelerated improvement event. Sometimes called "Kaizen events," the purpose is to quickly implement low-cost improvements that result in a measurable impact. Important considerations are how to engage shop floor operators in identifying and resolving ergonomics challenges and how to measure the impact of ergonomics improvements.

Operator involvement is critical to the success of improvement events. No one knows the process and the daily challenges that result in barriers to productivity like the operators do. Getting their full involvement in

ergonomics problem-solving is accomplished through a simple "find it and fix it" approach. Relying on common language rather than technical terms, the "find it and fix it" method combines traditional ergonomics training (work-related musculoskeletal disorder symptoms and risk factors) with targeted ergonomics problem-solving skills.

Also critical to the success of improvement events is the availability of a method by which to quickly and easily quantify ergonomic risks. Measure the impact of improvements using a risk factor survey that has specific risk factors ("arms raised greater than 45 degrees" rather than "arms raised") and a scoring system. Quantification facilitates priority setting and provides the "proof" that ergonomic changes really are improvements.

Ergonomics and Six Sigma

A key process in Six Sigma is DMAIC:

  • Define goals
  • Measure current performance
  • Analyze to determine root causes
  • of performance barriers
  • Improve the process
  • Control future performance variations

This straightforward, problem-solving process emphasizes data analysis, so your ergonomics process must be data-driven. The risk factor survey described above is even more critical to integrating ergonomics with Six Sigma. The emphasis on data analysis, however, somewhat obscures the importance of creative problem solving. While a risk factor survey will pinpoint the ergonomic risks, these types of analysis tools typically don't relate the workplace design issues and task factors that are the root causes of the ergonomics challenges. A problem-solution process such as the "find it and fix it" approach still is necessary to achieve improvements.

One consideration for Six Sigma initiatives is the reliability and repeatability of your risk factor survey. Reliability refers to the ability for different people to achieve the same score for a job, while repeatability refers to the ability to achieve the same score looking at the same job several times. Because Six Sigma is such a data-driven process, the quality of the measurement tools is paramount.

Manufacturing improvement initiatives can be a two-edged sword for ergonomics. With the right ingredients, they can accelerate the ergonomics improvement process. Without them, they can create more ergonomics problems and lead to spikes in injury/illness statistics and workers' compensation costs. Apply the elements described in this article to ensure that Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma enable ergonomics success rather than disable the process altogether.


Kaizen Approach to Ergonomics at DENSO

Yields 27 Percent Drop in Recordable Injuries As one of the nation's premier manufacturers of air conditioning components, DENSO in Long Beach, Calif., reinvented itself from a reactionary manufacturing environment in 1994 to a proactive ergonomic and safety leader through the methodologies and practices of ergonomics and Kaizen. As a direct result, DENSO achieved a 27 percent reduction in recordable injuries between 1998 and 2000.

In 1995, DENSO commissioned Humantech Inc. to train 60 company employees - including hourly workers, maintenance staff, engineers, management and human resources - in skill-based ergonomics during 1997 and 1998. The training planted the seeds for an ergonomic improvement process through Kaizen, already a fixture at DENSO since the 1970s. Kaizen, a Japanese word meaning

gradual, orderly and continuous improvement, represents a culture of sustained continuous improvement focusing on eliminating waste in all systems and processes of an organization. The strategy requires regular input from the entire company staff, from operators to management. Thus, ergonomics at DENSO began as a way to reduce wasteful motion in work activities. The trained employees returned to the shop floor and applied their ergonomic training during routine Kaizen improvement events.

At the same time, DENSO set out to implement ergonomic improvements beginning with a formalized loss review. The trained employees targeted high-risk work areas and areas with a history of worker injury and discomfort. Humantech completed a risk map to help the company develop a plan for improvements and to gain management commitment and support for the plan. As a result, DENSO successfully implemented improvements in industrial workstations and departments (cooling unit line, tube and hose lines).

Employee involvement and management buy-in to the Kaizen ergonomic events has paid off. DENSO saw a significant reduction in recordable injuries and increased productivity in multiple lines. DENSO's experiences have brought to light some key concepts:

  • Design standards and templates to engineer out possible problems.
  • Create a common dialogue to discuss ergonomics in a clear and defined way.
  • Leverage existing processes and programs, such as Kaizen, to create ergonomic improvements.
  • Involve management early in the ergonomic improvement process to increase the likelihood that they will support and continue the process.

About the author: Scott Smith, CPE, is vice president and ergonomics engineer for Humantech Inc. Since 1979, Humantech has assisted companies throughout North America in successful ergonomics initiatives in a variety of workplace settings including production and assembly, offices and laboratories. Through a clear focus on low-cost workplace improvements that produce quantifiable savings, Humantech clients benefit from health and safety improvements and business results. For additional information related to successful ergonomics programs, visit Humantech's Web site,

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