Changes to the workplace represent both risks and opportunities for ergonomics. The risk of change is that without considering ergonomics, new challenges can be introduced. For example, a company became aware that product finish problems (scratches) were sometimes occurring but the source was unknown, so a Six Sigma green belt project was initiated. The root cause was identified - the metal table that the assembly was placed on while adding a label - and the countermeasure of adding a rubberized mat to the table was implemented. 

Unfortunately, the rubberized mat made it so that workers could no longer position the heavy assembly on the front edge of the table and slide it back. Now they had to gently lower it into position, farther away from their body, greatly increasing the biomechanical stress to the back and shoulders.  Luckily no injuries were reported, although complaints of neck and back pain quickly arose. The situation was revisited, and the rubberized mat was replaced with a plastic table top that facilitated sliding the object from the front edge of the table while eliminating the potential for scratching.

Workplace changes

Opportunities for ergonomic improvement can also come from workplace changes. An example is a lean team that assessed the ergonomics risk of the jobs in their fabrication department prior to a week-long kaizen event. They included ergonomics risk as a metric for improvement (along with standard quality, floor space, and productivity metrics), and were able to make numerous changes as part of the kaizen event to reduce the number of jobs with high ergonomics risk from 4 to 1, a 75% improvement.

Both Lean Production (also called Lean Manufacturing) and Six Sigma, popular continuous improvement strategies in business today, represent an opportunity to accelerate ergonomics improvement.  By systematically linking ergonomics training, assessments, and improvements to these powerful change initiatives, you can leverage opportunities for ergonomics improvement while guarding against unintended ergonomics challenges being introduced to the workplace.

Ergonomics and Lean

The term “Lean Production” was popularized in the 1990 book The Machine that Changed the World, which highlighted the Toyota Production System (TPS) as a highly effective approach for achieving lower costs and greater quality. Numerous companies have adapted TPS into their own version of lean manufacturing, but typically the focus is very similar:  continuous improvement of the workplace by driving the elimination of waste. 

Ergonomics risk is a suitable measure for lean initiatives as a safety metric. An ergonomics screening survey, for example REBA, can be used to quantify ergonomics risk at the beginning of a project, establish targets for improvement, and verify that the risk score has achieved the targets at the end of the project. Communicating ergonomics risk in a red-yellow-green format ensures that everyone understands the current state even if they aren’t familiar with the ergonomics assessment tool used.

In addition to adopting ergonomics risk as a key metric for lean improvement projects such as kaizen or P3 events, specific ergonomics activities that can be adopted for Lean Production initiatives include:

  • Require that a trained ergonomics Subject Matter Expert (SME) be included in all Lean improvement projects
  • Train  workers to recognize and report ergonomics issues in their jobs prior to continuous improvement activities in their area
  • Include ergonomics issues in 5S audit checklists
  • Adopt the goal of  reducing ergonomics risk below “high risk” for all workplace improvements
  • Report ergonomics risk levels at the conclusion of all Lean improvement projects
  • Include ergonomics risk measures in visual management boards

Ergonomics and Six Sigma

Six Sigma is a process improvement strategy popularized by General Electric beginning in the mid-1990s. It focuses on using quality management tools to reduce process variation, and in many companies, emphasizes widespread training of Six Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts and the pursuit of cost savings projects.  

Six Sigma methodologies are more standardized throughout industry than Lean Initiatives. Most companies use the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) project management format for improving existing operations, and the DMEDI (Define, Measure, Explore, Develop, Implement) format for new designs.

Similar to Lean, ergonomics risk is a suitable metric for Six Sigma projects. 

Getting Lean/Six Sigma Leadership On Board

Linking ergonomics with Lean or Six Sigma is only possible when the leaders of the continuous improvement initiative agree to include ergonomics in their activities. There are three reasons you can bring to the discussion of why they should embrace ergonomics into their programs:

  1. Workplace ergonomics is a natural fit for the Lean or Six Sigma process because it too is a continuous improvement activity. Excluding ergonomics from their programs will result in ergonomics improvement activities taking place at the same time as their initiatives - sometimes in the same departments - without any coordination.
  2. Worker engagement can be the biggest challenge for Lean and Six Sigma activities. Ergonomics improvements are something workers understand benefits them, as they make work easier and less painful, and consequently ergonomics attracts worker participation. Companies that systematically embrace ergonomics in their Lean and Six Sigma efforts have seen it to be a real game changer.3. Ergonomics risk is easily quantified and fits nicely with the metrics tracking process for Lean and Six Sigma projects. The current state of ergonomics risk can be established, ergonomics countermeasures can be identified to improve the metric, and the future state ergonomics risk can be measured. Ergonomics is an easy fit for continuous improvement initiatives.