What do Lean and Six Sigma have to do with Ergonomics?ost

Turns out, a lot. Ergonomists often talk about how companies could save money by implementing ergonomics improvements. Usually, we’re referring to how workers’ compensation claims could be avoided. We have statistics! The average sprain/strain injury claim costs about $5000 in Ontario, and strains/sprains are the leading ”nature” of injury (and have been for as long as I can remember). But these assertions have been falling on deaf ears. In the compensation world, as in the safety sphere, the focus has always been on avoiding critical injuries. Strains and sprains are often viewed as “a cost of doing business” – a significant cost, but seemingly unavoidable.

We need to take a different approach. When people work at “non-ergonomic” jobs, they are uncomfortable and they are more likely to report an injury. But if the cost of modifying that job is significant, then that modification becomes “pie in the sky” – not justifiable. We would like to change that perspective.

Many organizations use Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma principles, within their production and quality programs. Ergonomists are most-commonly hired under “safety”, so our interactions with Lean and Six Sigma may be peripheral; at first glance, these programs even seem to run counter to ergonomics goals. “Lean” attempts to remove any rest time from the work cycle, and Six Sigma, in trying to reduce errors, may add layers of complexity to a job. But these programs already have traction in the organization, and, when we truly think about it, we ought to expect an ergonomics improvement to yield productivity and quality benefits. When the job fits the worker, the worker performs better.

So how can ergonomists integrate ergonomics into these effective workplace programs? We must ask the right questions. When we’re asked to look at an “ergonomic” issue because workers are reporting injuries or discomfort, we need to look deeper than strain/sprain injury risk. We need to understand the impact of this issue on the quality and productivity systems. When someone makes an error, what can happen? Where is the bottleneck in this system? We believe that workers and supervisors hold the keys to these boxes of information. We need to ask questions in the language of the client…. a “quality defect” in one workplace might be “rework” or “scrap” or “customer returns” in another. Perhaps an error causes a product to be reclassified from “Grade A” to “Grade B”. Every industry has its own way of dealing with workplace mistakes, but rest assured that workers in every industry do make errors and tend to make more of them when they are uncomfortable or in pain.

We are joining the management and engineering team – we want to join the game. When Lean manufacturing was introduced years ago, many ergonomists shuddered…. muscle recovery time is critical in injury avoidance, and the idea that efficiency was “king” of the manufacturing jungle was perceived as a threat to strain/sprain injury avoidance.

Strain/sprain hazards may also be efficiency opportunities. When workers reach forward, bend to the floor, and reach overhead, time is wasted. This is time that could be saved by presenting parts and tools in a more ergonomic position. When workers have difficulty fitting parts together, or use high efforts to push a cart, “Lean” would agree with us that improvements are warranted. So, ergonomists need to effectively utilize Lean principles to implement changes that will improve productivity. When we get rid of the awkward, forceful tasks, the muscles don’t need as much recovery time within the cycle.

Similarly,  in any given workplace, the hardest jobs to fill are the ones that have “ergo” issues. However, we need to find more-than-anecdotal evidence of this trend. We need to root out those jobs that people try to transfer out of, job assignments that lead people to call in sick, and then quantify “job satisfaction” issues in terms that managers can relate to.

Ergonomics can work hand in hand with Lean and Six Sigma approaches, so that cost-justification of ergonomics projects is logical and aligns with company objectives. Please plan to join us in Cambridge on November 18. We will be sharing the approach and results that we have attained with our fall research project with Fanshawe College. Victoria, Andrea, Carrie, and Allison Stephens of Fanshawe have been applying these tools to help with cost-justification analysis. They are excited to share what they have learned!

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