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How to Implement an Ergonomic-Lean Initiative—And All But Guarantee Failure


Has your company implemented Lean or Ergonomics?  Or, is your company more forward thinking and knew that both systems are best done in tandem and tried to implement them at the same time?  How successful have you been? 

(Note:  Ergonomics by definition is to improve human (worker) well-being, i.e. productivity, comfort, safety, wellness, and system performance, i.e. productivity, efficiency and performance.  Lean by definition of its two pillars is to reduce waste and respect people (workers).  As you can see they both focus on improving work systems and people)

You may be surprised to read, based on my experience as both an employee of and consultant to organizations, the most common cause of failure for both ergonomics and lean or either of these systems has less to do with the new items and issues brought about by implementing them but much more to do with the existing weaknesses organizations have in their own management systems.    It may be comforting to know that many ergonomic and lean implementations have failed and many are failing, at least in part, if not the entire system.  So if you’ve failed or are struggling with these systems you’re not alone.  Let’s take a look at the reasons behind this.


What’s the problem?

The number one issue is the lack of a stable, consistent work system or work flow.  In lean terms this means a “stable process flow”.  If you don’t have a predictable work system how can you begin to evaluate it and improve it to make it free of risks, hazards and non-value added activities?


Why is this problem, the lack of a stable work system, so common?  Many organizations I’ve found wish to implement a lean and ergonomics initiative often lack a systems approach and do not have the knowledge and experience necessary that go along with systems thinking.  Lacking this knowledge they typically go to the internet or read a book about how to implement lean and ergonomics.  This ultimately results in failure because the book or internet resources don’t clearly state the need for a solid foundational work system.  If one looks closely at the roots of lean, i.e. the Toyota Production System, and reads the words of one of the founders, Taiichi Ohno, you will find that he likened the lean system to a management system that will work in any business. (TPS: Beyond Large-Scale Production). 


Stable Work System (work flow)

Having a stable work system is necessary as the initial condition before implementing lean and ergonomics upon which you build in quality control systems on top of, i.e. Six Sigma or as in Lean, PDCA.  If you try to build quality control systems on a poor work system and implement lean or ergonomic tools the initiative is bound to fail. 


The question then is “Why is this need for a stable work system so often missed or ignored?”  There are probably various reasons as to why but in my experience the most apparent one is that most people who try to implement lean and ergonomics systems never thought to create the systems, rather they focused on the tools, i.e. kanban, 5S, SMED, etc. and what they’re read and heard from others.  The unfortunate thing with most literature is that it comes from academics have studied lean and ergonomics by reading about it, researching it but rarely actually doing it on a day to day basis.  (This isn’t meant to put down academics it’s just that research studies rarely reflect actual work conditions.)  If given a choice I’d much rather learn to play tennis from Serena Williams who has studied, observed and most importantly played the game instead of learning from those who have studied tennis, knows the history of tennis and has observed many matches but has never played. 


Critical components

I’ve already stated the most critical component on which to implement lean and ergonomics is to have a stable work system (work process flow).  There are two other components that are very important to the implementation and sustainability of lean and ergonomics. 


The first is the consideration of machinery/equipment issues.  What are the work systems for the machines/equipment, i.e. what is their “up time”, is there a preventative maintenance process, what are the features to prevent human error and injuries, etc. 


The second is the consideration of the human, i.e. the workers.  What are their abilities, limitations, challenges to perform the tasks as intended, etc. 


These are two major issues in addition to a stable work system that need time and attention in all organizations as they begin their lean and ergonomic initiatives.  Without a solid foundation from having a stable work process and understanding of machinery/equipment processes and human factors the chances of having a successful lean and ergonomic systems implementation declines significantly.  If there is no standard work system how can there be any improvement?  Without a stable work system there is too much variation.  This leads to using tools and coming up with improvements that may work in some situations at best and at worst, lead to no improvement at all.  It would be similar to building a house without first laying a firm foundation. 


Key Take Away:

The key learning point is to realize that a stable work system (work flow) is a fundamental operating state for all organizations that must be put in place if you desire to implement lean and ergonomics successfully.  After you have this in place then you identify a basic need for improvement and design a solution.  Then you implement it.  Find its strengths and gaps.  Modify it.  Refine it further.  Repeat.  Don’t forget to take the time and effort to understand why it worked, why it didn’t work and where else this could be used each step along the way.  This will show you in what situation you can do it again and not do it.  Continue to analyze it further and study it.  Best yet, tell others how it worked—or didn’t and why.  It may sound like a difficult learning cycle but what I just described is the foundation of continuous process improvement fit on top of ergonomics and lean systems which were used to improve and refine a stable work system.  By doing so you will have success and make progress—not fail.