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Applying Deming to workplace safety

September 19, 2012
Long before I became a safety professional I worked as a consultant to one of the former Big Three automobile manufacturers. I was brought in as part of a State of Michigan government grant to save a factory that auto maker had decided to decommission. The consultants were given pretty much cart blanche to try anything and everything to turn things around.

It looked pretty hopeless. The plant management and union local were at each other’s throats, quality was poor even by 1970s standards, and productivity was abysmal. The company had already identified other factories to do the work and left no doubt that it didn’t see much hope for anything changing, at least not enough to save the plant.

W. Edwards Deming
W. Edwards Deming

It was in this bleak, fourth down, “Hail Mary Pass” environment that I first learned about the teachings of W. Edwards Deming. I was working my way through college at the time and taking business courses at University Of Michigan, so I had heard about and, indeed, studied the teachings of Deming, Drucker, and Juran, but nothing was near as instructive as what I saw on this factory floor.

Many of the workers (both management and hourly) had a strong sense of entitlement and few connected their job security with the way in which they did their jobs. Plant management (and by this I am referring to the practice not necessarily the people) was firmly entrenched in the way things had always been done. Nobody cared much about what workers (again on both sides of the bargaining table) thought as long as people maintained the status quo and did what they were told.

For four long, hard years, my colleagues and I worked with the plant leadership to relearn manufacturing, much of which was based on the teachings of that one man: W. Edward Deming. When we finished and left the plant, it had completely rebounded. Instead of being decommissioned, it was enlarged and thrived for another 25 years until the work was ultimately farmed out to overseas suppliers. But the transformation there was astonishing, and I went on to apply what I learned about World Class Manufacturing to transforming how companies manage worker safety.

I’ve tried for years to get safety professionals to embrace the teachings of Deming and to get them to apply these principles — specifically his 14 Points for Management — to worker safety. For whatever reason, my arguments have largely fallen on the deafest of ears. Many safety professionals, even at the most senior levels, don’t see any reason to change from the way things have already been done.

Then it occurred to me. Deming’s work was rooted in engineering discipline and process control, while safety grew out of the human resources function. This seemingly inconsequential difference has much to do with the state of safety in the world and why it needs to change.

There is a major disconnect between HR and engineering, a great and deep philosophical divide between the two. Engineering is, at its purest core, about change and improvement; it’s about continuous improvement. Human resources (as much as some may argue) is about keeping things the same; it’s concerned with compliance and fairness and rules and doing the same thing the same way every time. The problem is, things are broken in safety, and things had better change before we all go broke.

I get a lot of guff when I talk about safety being broken. After all, haven’t we made great strides in safety? Injuries are on the decrease, aren’t they? Well sure, we’ve made progress. And yes, injuries seem to be going down, but . . . so what?

Several years ago I toured a plant that manufactured fiberglass. It had invested heavily in behavior-based safety and prided itself in how terribly concerned it was with safety. This 360-employee facility had a safety committee of 16 workers who spent, by their own account, about 15–20 hours a week in safety-related activity. The plant had claimed to do over 7,000 safety observations, started every shift with a safety talk, and you literally couldn’t look in any direction without having your senses assaulted by some insipid reminder to work safe.

They even had a children’s safety poster contest where the employees’ children competed to make the best reminder for mom and dad to work more safely. (Years later I asked what kind of a sick creep introduces the possibility that mommy or daddy will be killed in an industrial accident to the mind of a 6- to 8-year-old, only to have my email in box blown up with hate mail from a bunch of out of touch safety fossils.)

Perhaps the biggest sign that the leadership of this facility had long sense left the rails was the $250 per employee bonus that was given out anytime there were no recordable injuries — every quarter. Workers were given $1000 extra a year just as long as nobody reported an injury. If your organization can afford to throw away this kind of money without showing any business results, then stop reading; nothing you will read here will help you if you honestly believe that this kind of bloated, wastrel approach to safety is smart business.

For those of you still reading, here are my 14 points for workplace safety. Some are adapted from Deming’s points and others I derived from my many years experience working in business optimization, because you can’t be successful in business if you don’t manage workplace safety:

14 Points for Workplace Safety

1.       Safety is not your number one priority
If safety were truly your number one priority you would close your doors and mothball your business. Your number one priority should always be the continued survival of your business. Anyone who tells you different is either a liar or a fool.

That having been said, you won’t be in business long if you don’t effectively manage safety. Safety is neither a priority nor a goal; instead it is a criterion by which manufacturers measure the efficacy of its efforts to be successful. Safety is a strategic business element that needs to be managed as scrupulously as quality, delivery, cost and morale.

2.       Mistakes are inevitable, injuries are not
People make mistakes; it’s practically embedded in our DNA. Stop trying to remind people not to make mistakes and focus instead on preventing the injuries that so predictably happen when people screw up. You may not prevent every injury, but that doesn’t make it impossible.

FMEAs and other predictive tools should be used to identify areas of greatest risk and efforts should be made to reduce the risk of injuries to the lowest practical level. The true benefit in this point is the belief that it is possible and the disappointment we feel anytime we aren’t successful in prevention.

3.       Focus on prevention
Preventing injuries is more efficient than reacting to them. If you spend your money preventing injuries you will spend less money overall. Stop thinking that you might get lucky and avoid a serious and costly injury; you won’t.  Injuries are typically caused by failures in the system. By managing hazards (procedural, behavioral, and mechanical) organizations can reduce unplanned downtime, injuries, and defects.

4.       Move beyond compliance
Compliance with the government regulations is important and tends to correlate to a process that is in control. But we can never mistake being compliant with being safe. Stop congratulating yourself for doing only that which is mandated by the government; you get no credit for doing what you were always supposed to have been doing.

5.       Instill universal ownership and accountability for safety
Every job plays a role in ensuring workplace safety. Everyone must be answerable when processes and protocols fail to keep workers safe. Hold workers accountable for eliminating hazards rather than for injuries.

6.       Shift the ownership of safety to operations
Operations has the greatest control and oversight of the safety of the workplace. Operations leadership should conduct routine reviews of key safety metrics. Safety as a function should be instructive and should help Operations to be more efficient.

7.       The absence of injuries does not necessarily denote the presence of safety
Safety is an expression of probability. No situation is ever 100 percent risk free. Safety must be managed in terms of risk not by taking a body count.

8.       Avoid shame and blame policies and tactics
Workers do not want to get hurt and manufacturing processes are not supposed to hurt them; no amount of behavior modification will change this.

9.       Invest in basic skills training
The best way to ensure worker safety is by providing them with good foundational training in the tasks they are routinely expected to do. People who are skilled at the basic tasks associated with their jobs are far less likely to be injured.

10.    End safety gimmicks.
There is a cottage industry devoted to taking your money in the name of safety rewards. Incentives should only be used to reward active participation in safety, not to reward an absence of reported injuries. Frankly, why isn’t coming home in one piece reward enough?

Most workers I’ve talked to find safety incentives condescending and somewhat insulting. As one put it, “They give us a pizza party at the end of the month if we don’t kill anyone. It’s as if they think the only reason we will ever work safe is for the pizza”.

11.   Stop comparing your safety performance to the industry average
Measuring an organization’s safety record relative to the broader industry average is meaningless and should be abandoned. Instead, use a combination of lagging and leading indicators to attain a more meaningful view of your overall performance in safety.

12.   Encourage better decision making
People take risks and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Our policies and procedures can never cover every contingency. We need to invest in training to help our workers to avoid making bad judgment calls and stupid decisions.

13.   Stop letting safety blame operations for its own inadequacies
Whenever I suggest a substantive change in how the Safety function does business, I am invariably told that the Operations leadership will never support my idea. Safety must be a key resource to Operations and stop whining every time it doesn’t get its way.

Instead of impeding Operations and hampering its progress, Safety must support Operations to find safe ways of accomplishing organizational goals instead of working at cross-purposes with Production. Safety needs to get out of the business of telling Operations “no” and Operations must collaborate with Safety to reduce risk as much as is practical.

14.   Stop trying to manipulate workers’ behaviors
Safety is not about managing people’s behavior; it’s about managing risk. Behavioral psychology is overused and frequently misused in commercial safety solutions. Behavior-based safety appeals to operations executives who are looking for a magic bullet. In reality, it is too often snake oil being sold by the greedy to the dim-witted.

 

It’s high time that we stop treating safety like it’s some mystical secret.  Let’s stop hiding behind the platitudes and get to work.  If the Safety function can’t support business than it’s time to get rid of it. Those safety professionals who understand the core business of the organizations in which they work should be celebrated, while those who simply collect a paycheck should be excused out the door.

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