Safety & Process Improvement: Synergy In Motion

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit


One thing I’ve learned about being in the consulting business is that you’d better enjoy your own company. Recently, though, I was traveling with company: Paul Balmert’s company. If you know Paul, that means the dinner conversation was all about safety, execution and leadership.

Knowing my background in Black Belt certification and time spent learning and teaching Lean and Six Sigma methodology, Paul asked for help converting the measurement of Six Sigma (measuring error rates per million) into the Injury Frequency Rate. I’ll be the first to admit: that’s something that probably hadn’t crossed the mind of many in the Lean Six Sigma consulting world.

So, there we were, solving a math problem over dinner. However, that discussion opened the door to some additional thinking on the powerful overlap between safety leadership concepts and Lean management concepts.

Challenge Number 1

For those that have participated in our leadership course, Managing Safety Performance, you know what a leaders biggest challenge is, right? Correct, it is time. Not always apparent to every leader when the question is first posed but with a little reflection and discussion it becomes clear: time is the common thread in every other challenge a leader can think of and add to the long list of challenges. With that in mind, our focus shifts to situations where a leader can leverage their limited time and be the best leader possible. We call these Moments of High Influence: they occur throughout the day. Astute leaders learn to recognize and capitalize on these special moments with their followers. Nothing new here!

Leaders face many expectations and priorities. Sometimes those priorities can become what we term “conflicting priorities.” Resolution requires a leader to make tough decisions, demonstrate managerial courage and engage in what we like to call “upward leading.” Leaders also face competing demands on their time: yes, safety is the highest priority for every leader, but it is not the only critical issue on a leader’s plate every day.

That’s the real world!

Back in the day, my manufacturing world often involved separating my manufacturing efficiency and process improvement focus from my focus on safety and safety leadership. In my mind, they were separate buckets of work requiring different tools. My discipline in the manufacturing and process improvement area were based on an engineering degree, front line leadership experience and the application of process improvement techniques established by W. Edwards Deming and several others. Deming’s teachings and the use of process control techniques became the basis for my career in facility management. This work ultimately led to certification in Lean and 6 Sigma methodology.

When I became a consultant, I had the opportunity to shift my focus to safety and safety leadership. (Thank you, Paul.) My safety training over the course of 40 years was pretty traditional, facilitated by new corporate initiatives, programs etc. All good, and all designed to deliver improved results.

However my understanding of safety leadership started with reading Alive and Well At The End Of The Day started. Reading and re-reading this book helped me understand the fundamental concepts of leadership, with a focus on safety.

The Tools of Business Process Improvement

Over the past couple years I’ve had the opportunity to spend more than eighty days in the classroom with leaders from fifteen different companies and hundreds of facilities teaching safety leadership. The classroom learning process is the result of outlining clear concepts, introducing and practicing powerful tools coupled with questions, outstanding classroom discussion and debate. This study and discussion of safety leadership concepts has opened my eyes to the obvious and logical overlap between safety leadership principles/concepts and the basic Lean tools involved in the continuous process improvement.

While terminology may be different, many of the concepts and tools that drive results are identical. In safety leadership we emphasize the importance of execution – the doing part of every process. Execution is best managed by the physical presence of the leader; Managing By Walking Around.

In the world of Lean we use the term Gemba. In Japanese it means “real place” – the place where real actions occur. In other words, this is reality! In our safety terms, where execution takes place!

Another Lean term – Gemba Kaizen; going to gemba – observing, identifying and solving any problems right on the spot in real time. Our safety leadership term; the deliberate and calculated use of a leaders time and presence to identify, address and improve performance. Our safety leadership tools; MBWA and use of SORRY +/-.

The roots of Lean are grounded in the disciplined and deliberate scientific method of inquiry. The heart of this methodology is the PDCA cycle. In our safety training we use this Deming Cycle to develop the concept of Execution, which is Step 2 in the cycle.

The term gemba means “real place”. In our world, it is the shop floor. When a manager wants to know reality, go to gemba, the source of all information. Gemba kaizen means going to gemba – observing, identifying and solving problems on the spot in real time. In our safety world, this incorporates the concepts of MBWA, DGQ and the Principle of Honest Dialogue. This is fundamental to improving our Performance Visibility – knowing reailty for what it is!

Gemba and execution are both focused on grasping the current situation. “Going to gemba” to observe and to understand is an effective way to verify and update a person’s mental image of how crews perform tasks or a process works. Personal observation is a powerful way to confront one’s own assumptions, misconceptions and biases regarding how tasks are performed.

In other words, this is the leadership action of gaining alignment with reality.

Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is based on the concept of a learning enterprise. Don’t confuse this with training. I’ll reference a wonderful statement by Dick Dusseldorp: “Training is for cats and dogs, people learn”. A learning enterprise is one where individuals, teams and the organization are continually learning and sharing in the realization of common goals.

Safety leadership, like gemba, should become a foundation of learning. Learning should be synonymous with execution, the doing part of every process. This is most effective when employees are given the opportunity to learn by practicing and doing, not just sitting in a classroom. The best learning experience involves hands and brains!

Self-discipline is a cornerstone of gemba management and safety management. Self disciplined employees can be trusted to maintain clean, orderly and safe work environments and follow existing standards to achieve targets.

The worst thing a leader can do is live in a world isolated from gemba-reality.

However, the act of being physically present in gemba, going to the shop floor and looking, is not enough. If a leader doesn’t know what he or she is looking for they will not see it. A leader may have the experience that provides deep understanding. However, many leaders for many good reasons do not have this deep understanding. When that experience doesn’t exist a leader must rely on effective communication with those that have the expertise. Once again, in our terms, a leader is dependent on Words & Actions and the Principle of Honest Dialogue.

Reality Is Reality!

Gemba is the most important place in the organization because it is the source of reality. If your desk is your workplace you are in trouble! Staying in close contact with gemba (reality) is the first and most important leadership action in managing and leading safety effectively.

The conflict here – a leaders biggest challenge of time. Therein lies the value of the first golden rule of gemba: when a problem arises, go to gemba first!

A key to resolving a problem is often found in the simple act of observing: seeing a detail that no one has yet noticed. Continuous improvement requires the effective, disciplined and timely use of problem solving tools. Effective safety leadership follows exactly the same concept.

Are you surprised by the fact that the best practices to improve business processes – Lean Six Sigma – mirror many of the same practices leaders follow to improve safety performance?

Neither am I.

Bill Wilson
June 2017

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