Using Kaizen to Improve Safety and Ergonomics

Kaizen, the implementation of low-cost improvements resulting in measurable impact, might just be your ergonomics program's new best friend.

Most companies do a decent job of documenting safety and ergonomic issues, but there is much room for improvement when it comes to following through with implementing the corrective actions in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, many safety managers have limited resources and staff to focus on this area. Failure to implement corrective actions can result in an unsafe and hazardous workplace, OSHA non-compliance or, in the worse case scenario, fatalities.

Most employers want to do the right thing, but the safety resolution process can be exhausting, slow and bureaucratic. Kaizen, a systematic approach and problem-solving tool adopted from the Toyota Production System (TPS), is aimed at quickly implementing low-cost improvements that result in measurable impact. It can be used to enhance your safety program effectiveness exponentially. While kaizen traditionally and primarily has focused on production and efficiency numbers, it can effectively be shifted to improving safety and ergonomics.

Top management and safety staff often ponder how to make the best use of their associates with less and less time to implement safety improvements. The kaizen approach can help address this problem.

What Are Kaizens?

Kaizens are characterized as short bursts of intense activity driven toward resolving a specific problem or achieving a specific company goal in a short period of time. A typical kaizen event may last several days, with a core team of employees reorganizing and standardizing a work area to create a safer and more efficient working environment. For example, a kaizen team implementing 5S (sort, set-in-order, shine, standardize, sustain) to standardize workplace organization, reduce the number of motions, shorten motion distances, make motions easier and eliminate tripping hazards and blind spots, would also realize improvements in cycle times and overall productivity.

Measurable improvements can be achieved by aggressively integrating ergonomics and lean production activities. Numerous related case studies exist:

  • TRW (Cookeville, Tenn., facility) utilized the kaizen approach and achieved a 90 percent reduction in severity rate while improving plant-wide throughput by 15 percent over 2 years (Humantech, 2002).
  • Honeywell identified cost savings of $100,000 per year from a single ergonomics improvement project (Material Handling Engineering, March 1999).
  • DENSO achieved a 27 percent reduction in recordable injuries between 1998 and 2000 by applying ergonomic and kaizen methodologies and practices (Smith, 2002).

While some companies have a safety department to aid in coordinating, advising and consulting for safety activities, it is not always their responsibility to implement corrective actions.

Companies must ensure that recommendations and preventive actions are implemented promptly. This is where the kaizen approach can be a big help. The approach quickly organizes and deploys safety kaizen teams to implement safety and ergonomic solutions. To run a safety kaizen effectively and as waste-free as possible, it is important to perform the following steps: 1) Describe the opportunity2) Form and train the team;3) Set goals and collect baseline data; and 4) Clearly outline responsibilities.

How Kaizen Works

First, the safety kaizen team must assess the current situation and describe the opportunity. After reviewing injury investigation reports and OSHA injury logs and analyzing accident trends data in the targeted area, the team should go to the gemba (i.e., where the work is performed) and gain a firsthand understanding of the current conditions. This can be accomplished by conducting safety audits, observations or interviews or by videotaping the work process to identify hazards such as congested or blocked fire extinguishers and exit routes, missing container labels, various ergonomic risk factors and lack of workplace organization.

The team size should be based on what makes sense given the scope of the kaizen. Team size is typically six to eight people. Everyone should be chosen for a purpose and be effective problem-solvers. Workers from the kaizen area, as well as workers upstream and downstream from the selected area, should be included because this creates a broad range of ownership. Also, consider adding someone to the team with a "different set of eyes," a fresh perspective, to challenge existing paradigms and ways of doing things that may create hazardous conditions.

Kaizen events are led by a team leader and a co-leader. The leader and co-leader should have proven leadership skills, including good communication and people skills. The leader and co-leader do not relieve line managers and supervisors of their key safety responsibilities, but do take the lead in the implementation phase of this problem-solving process. That said, they should be experienced in the kaizen process. If not, a sensei, (i.e., teacher) should be brought in to provide guidance and leadership to the team leaders, safety coordinators and local leadership.

Next, the team will need to set goals and collect baseline data. The safety goals for each area should be assigned by top management. The team, with guidance from management, should link the kaizen objectives to the area goals. For example, if the goal is to reduce medical treatment cases by 15 percent, then such improvements as 5S and ergonomic standard work procedures should be linked to that overall goal. You should specify the degree of injury reduction that you are targeting and the period in which you intend to achieve it. Also, specify the class or type of injury you hope to reduce in each kaizen objective. This will provide a yardstick, documented on the kaizen target sheet and safety metrics, to measure your safety performance.

Finally, management and the kaizen team leader and co-leader must clearly outline team members' responsibilities. This is accomplished by creating a checklist (kaizen newspaper) that specifies the description of the problem, countermeasures, team members' responsibilities, due dates, percentage complete and the completion dates. During the kaizen event, the leader and co-leader should review the kaizen newspaper and status with the team as well as with top management, process owners, safety/ergonomic coordinators and/or plant physician so they can offer support, address any obstacles and give additional course direction if needed. The Lean manager, if your company has one, also should attend these reviews to ensure alignment with the company's overall lean initiatives.


1. Christopher D. Chapman, "Clean House with Lean 5S," Quality Progress, June 2005, pp 27-32.

2. "Managing Safety Systems That Work for Operations Managers," DuPont Safety Resources, 2000.

3. "TRW Improves Health and Safety While Increasing Productivity with Humantech," Humantech, 2002.

4. Scott Smith, "Ergonomics and Manufacturing Excellence," Occupational Hazards, September 2002.

CHRISTOPHER D. CHAPMAN is a senior program manager at the Center for Excellence in Lean Enterprise at the Center for Integrated Manufacturing Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

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