Coming together of what you may be wondering. And no, this isn’t about the Beatles famous song but the words fit the purpose of my article. You see I came across three companies in the past month where Lean or Ergonomics were done separately from each other resulting in quite less than optimal outcomes for all involved—the employees, the manager and the process. I looked at all three situations and wonder why it is so difficult for companies and practitioners to see the importance, need and ROI of integrating and apply Lean and Ergonomics as one united approached. I will admit that I am a bit biased in this since I apply this approach in my company’s marketing, consulting and training (“Do more with L.E.S.S. “(Lean, Ergonomics, Six Sigma and Systems Thinking); however, the continued lack of foresight and hindsight in regards to this continues to amaze me.
Let me share with you one example of the three for demonstration purposes. (This example is two of the three that did Lean without Ergonomics. The other was Ergonomics done without Lean):
Background: The company was a small parts manufacturer that committed to implementing Lean over three years ago. Managers have received Lean training and all employees are familiar with one piece flow, 5S and the goal of striving to do things better, faster each day. They have transformed over 60% of their work areas by using Lean. Their employee safety is basically overseen by HR.
The Initial Problem: A one piece flow work cell as created 8 months ago. Prior to the conversion the work to create this high demand part was done in a seated position by 8 employees (ages 35-61) who each did one or two steps in the manufacturing process. The process was deemed to be slow and had lower quality than desired. The steps involved both precision and light work tasks (use of microscope, small hand tools, manual presses, etc.). Zero employee injuries or near misses for years.
Goal: Transform the work into a 1 piece flow work cell to improve time and quality.
Work Cell Design: The work was changed from sitting to standing. The height of all of the workstation tables was standardized to 36” regardless of the task being performed; all tools/microscopes/presses were positioned on the workstation surface; there were no changed to how the tools were operated (hand or foot controls); number of employees varied from 1-2 depending on demand.
Result after 8 months: Speed of production was slightly faster (about 5-10 seconds less/part) and quality was better. One workers compensation claim (hip and neck). Both employees had complained to HR and manager that the layout created pain in their legs, back, neck and arms and that the manager “didn’t care about them”.
I wish I could share a picture with you, but I can’t due to confidentiality. The “ergonomics” problems created by the new Lean cell design were obvious and, in my opinion, completely unnecessary had ergonomics been included in the design development of the cell. This would have achieved even greater savings in time and improved quality without creating a work comp injury and decimating employee morale. The changes in the design had ergonomics been included would have been:
· Appropriate workstation height for precision vs. light work. Light work requires a lower height than precision work. One way to account for this would be to either have adjustable height tables or platforms that could be easily and quickly added/put away at the beginning of each shift that employees could use to bring the work to the right height
· Appropriate microscope height. Microscopes are a bit tricky to deal with posture-wise to match the user’s eye and head/neck/back posture to the eye piece. This is best dealt with by using adjustable eye pieces (they raise and come towards the user) or by adjustable height tables as mentioned above.
· Elimination of foot controls. Standing and having to extend one foot/leg to operate a foot control repeatedly can be a potential risk for lower extremity/lower back strain. Work with engineering to come up with a hand control place on the work surface to replace (as much as possible) the foot control. In addition, hand controls are more precise which in this case would have been an advantage for improving quality.
· Prolonged standing. Obviously, employees who go from sitting all day to standing all day need some time for their bodies to adapt. It would be expected to have complaints of foot, leg or back discomfort from prolonged sitting. Although anti-fatigue mats were provided, they were not enough to counteract the negative effects of standing in one place performing each task prior to moving a couple feet to the next task/workstation. Ideally, in Lean and Ergonomics, the goal would be to reduce the time need for each task/workstation to under 45 seconds (better would be under 30 seconds). Since the total size of this U-shaped cell was rather small (~10’x16’) the number steps needed to move to each task/workstation was minimal. If the time needed/task could not be reduced (or the total number of tasks reduced) then having the option of one task/workstation to be done in sitting (stool) would provide a rest break from standing. [Although a future option could be the Chairless Chair]
Lean and Ergo must come together in companies, otherwise your people (health and productivity) and process (efficiency and quality) will suffer. This is no reason to create or add employee wellness, safety and performance issues, nor is there any reason to slow down or add steps to a process when designing work. Both can easily be achieved at the same time if, and only if, those responsible for people and process come together. Lean/Six is a commonly known, now it only L.E.S.S. could become commonly known…someday it will.