4 Tips to Start Implementing Lean Ergonomics Today

how to start implementing lean ergonomics

“Ergonomics are not a safety and health issue—they’re a symptom of process inefficiency,” says Steve Davis, Lean Ergonomics Practitioner with the University of Kentucky’s Lean Systems Program. Davis teaches the Lean Ergonomics Certification Course along with Lean Pracitioner, Luther Cotrell, a retired Toyota manager.

Housed within the College of Engineering, the lean program has a 20+ year partnership with Toyota, initiated in 1994 by Dr. Fujio Cho, then CEO of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky.

Davis is also founder of Ergonauts Performance Technologists, a team of experts that help organizations increase efficiency, productivity, and quality through its unique ergonomics management approach.

“One third of all injuries and illnesses and 40 percent of all workers’ compensation claims are caused by the ergonomic failure of an operating system. It’s an efficiency issue,” explains Davis.

We sat down with Steve Davis to talk more about lean ergonomics and how it can be successfully applied within a company. Here’s what we learned.

Lean Ergonomics: What Is It?

When hearing the word ergonomics, most people think of improving the equipment they use. Or they think of changing behaviors that will help to reduce injuries. But this kind of approach to ergonomics leaves out a critical third element, explains Davis. The critical, third part is to examine the entire system for inefficiencies.

Consider lean manufacturing, the process of eliminating inefficiencies so that a manufacturing environment can achieve the most production, for the least cost. It’s a systematic, results-oriented approach to eliminating inefficiency.

These same principles can be applied to other categories of our work, outside of manufacturing, which is where the term “lean ergonomics” stems from.

“Ergonomics can be seen as an expense or [perceived as the] anchor that the boat is dragging. Lean in itself is the most efficient way to run a business. By taking the ergonomic principles and applying the lean principles to those, you can systematically remove those inefficiencies and risk factors,” explains Davis.

The list of benefits when applying lean ergonomics across operating procedures is long. Benefits include:

  • Improved quality
  • Improved efficiency
  • Improved productivity
  • Higher morale
  • Improved on-time delivery
  • Cost savings
  • Improved safety and health of individuals and teams
  • Reduction of key risk factors
  • Reduction of injuries and disability

“You can see that when you remove risk factors that are identified as caused by musculoskeletal injuries or injuries due to poor ergonomics, you will see an increase in efficiency as a result,” says Davis. “The process becomes more efficient and the people become more efficient.”

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Looking at the Process for Change

Knowing that ergonomic problems can be viewed as process inefficiencies, Davis’ proposed model is a systematic way of looking at employee behavior and culture.

Here’s a look at a few elements included in his process for change:

1. Analyze where you are at today.

You can begin by discovering inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and conduct an analysis of all jobs for ergonomic risk factors. “When doing so, organizations must look beyond the traditionally recognized symptoms of ergonomic injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Davis. “Other symptoms of ergonomic problems are missed delivery targets, high scrap or rework rates, returned goods, and customer dissatisfaction, to name a few.”

This analysis can shed light on many hidden safety and health problems (or risk factors) that may often be overlooked. “For example, employees that are noncompliant in operation of machinery with guards in place, may really be unable to meet production requirements with them in place due to poor design,” says Davis.

2. Educate, train & certify.

The entire workforce needs awareness training. Start with education, followed by training, and work towards certifications.

To start, ensure workers are aware of the answer to these questions:

  • What are ergonomics?
  • How are ergonomics part of everyday life (at work and outside of work)?
  • What are the symptoms of Musculoskeletal Disorders? (Why does early reporting matter?)
  • What are the risk factors? What other steps can we take to protect ourselves and to prevent/reduce hazards?

“You need to be able to identify every function within an organization that needs training, ergonomics training or lean ergonomics training,” says Davis. “Curriculum for the workplace should be all-encompassing, including, as a minimum, plant management, engineering, healthcare providers, HR, and awareness training for all employees.” 

3. Foster a culture of problem-solvers.

A great objective is that the entire culture will embrace lean ergonomics. “It should be part of all your systems. It’s part of the way you purchase equipment. It’s manufacturing equipment, hospital equipment, office equipment. We call it ergo-standardization. If you have your processes standardized, and it is part of your purchasing standards, then you prevent risk factors from coming into your processes, across the company, to begin with,” says Davis.

“At the University of Kentucky, we systematically tear the system apart when applying lean ergonomics. The only way you can practice prevention is affected at a systems level.”

To foster that environment, you can start by:

  • Creating a new set of ergonomic requirements that support lean ergonomic principles. This includes anthropometrics, machine serviceability/ maintainability, human performance capacity and environmental issues. These may be new, minimum requirements for workstations, tools, and machines.
  • Adopting tools that help to proactively prevent injuries, including leading indicators.
  • Ensuring employees are trained in identifying the signs and symptoms of Musculoskeletal Disorders.
  • Embrace the concept of Yokaten—meaning “across everywhere.” If you have one process that’s wrong, you find it, fix it, but then it’s about systematically communicating so you can fix those issues across the company. “That’s preventive ergonomics,” explains Davis.

Toyota’s company-wide premise is, “Find a problem, fix a problem, and keep it from reoccurring.” Again, that reflects their systematic approach to problem solving.

A culture that embraces this idea can apply this kind of problem solving (and continuous improvement) to all areas of the business. “This is a culture where every employee is empowered to raise an issue based on continuous improvement. They have a mechanism so that they can communicate that throughout the various parts of the organization. If it is something that maintenance needs to fix, for example, they have the resources allocated to do it,” says Davis.

“More importantly, they don’t view it as a problem—they view it as an opportunity to be better, and it’s a cultural issue for them.”

4. Be sure it’s supported.

Be sure that team members are supported, and when appropriate, rewarded for their implementation of lean ergonomics. Davis says having space for ongoing feedback about work and the work environment is critical, too.

“It should be a culture where people know they can share what is going on, if something is not working. If workers see things are not working, they should be able to speak up.”

The Way of the Future

Organizations that are successful in implementing behavior-based safety processes find that these positive results evolve into behavior-based quality systems. Said another way, these changes can improve quality and safety!

Lean ergonomics are the way of the future, and will give your business a strategic advantage, says Davis. “This is the number one problem across all industries,” he says.

“We’ve designed this so that it fits all of us, not just organizations who are deeply involved in lean. This is a method and we want to educate the masses to solve.”

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For more on insights about this blog post, visit the Ergonauts website and the Lean Ergonomics Certification Course.

Passages from this article are from the publication by: Steve Davis, CEM; Lisa Davis, MD, CEM; Mike Gladden, PhD, CPE, CEM (Ergonauts: Performance Technologists), titled,  “Lean Ergonomics Defined.” 

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