Rob Hafey, international business consultant and author Lean Safety, discusses the importance of safety in the workplace and how lean safety gemba walks transforms professional well-being from a compliance issue to something that continues to benefit employees and business.

This takes safety from the realm of something you have to do (compliance) to something benefitting employees and the business

Safety walks are an integral part of most safety programmes. Just search the internet for “safety walk” and you will find many free downloadable forms that you can use to conduct a traditional safety walk. What do I mean by traditional? Traditional safety programmes are all compliance based programmes.

Regulatory agencies (OSHA in the US) define and enforce rules meant to protect workers.  Businesses in turn make an effort, by using a variety of methods, to comply. Safety walks, which are really safety audits, have been used for decades. An individual, or group of individuals, walks through a facility and audits the current state condition against the OSHA standards.

If you read through the safety walk audit forms on the internet or the one used in almost any business, you will find words like stairs, extinguishers, machines, guards, switches, signs, racks, aisles, etc.  In addition to internally driven safety walks a company’s insurance carrier may ask to visit the site and conduct a safety audit. Their walk through will mirror the one described above.

All of these compliance driven safety walks focus everyone’s attention on procedure and fail to look at the people doing the work.  If the individuals are observed at all it is only to ensure compliance.  For example, are they wearing their PPE (personal protective equipment)? This type of safety walk may help maintain compliance but they do nothing to move the safety culture of your business forward.  They actually keep your safety programme anchored in the past.

For the last three years I have been leading lean safety gemba walks. Gemba, a Japanese word, is part of the lean community vernacular.  It means the shop floor or where the work is done.  The word lean has become synonymous with continuous improvement. So a lean safety gemba walk is a walk on the shop floor that focusses on the continuous improvement of safety. The walks have ranged from one-on-one events with senior leaders to guiding large groups of workshop attendees on a journey that changes how they view safety.

Lean safety gemba walks have nothing to do with compliance. Rather than focus on procedure, the sole focus is the people doing the work. By watching the actions required to complete work tasks, it is easy to identify improvement opportunities that make work safer and easier. When conducted in a respectful manner, by a skilled facilitator, these safety gemba walks have a dramatic impact on the safety culture of a business. They engage managers and hourly staff in the continuous improvement of safety.  Employees now have a chance to make a difference in their safety culture rather than just be compliant with the rules.

A secondary benefit of making work safer and easier is cycle time reduction, which is the goal of lean, to reduce customer delivery cycle times by eliminating waste. Therefore a business can move its lean efforts forward by focussing on safety improvement. This takes safety from the realm of something you have to do (compliance) to something benefitting employees and the business. That’s a win-win result.

Robert Hafey

RBH Consulting LLC

Author of Lean Safety –  Transforming your Safety Culture with Lean Management