What Is Lean Safety
Read Time 7m

Lean Safety for Small Businesses | What is Lean Safety

Lean safety is a method for identifying ways (and reducing waste) to prevent workplace accidents and injuries. These are the 6S steps for lean safety.
Lean Safety for Small Businesses | What is Lean Safety

For manufacturers and other businesses, safety is often thought of within the context of compliance. This is understandable given that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires businesses to observe numerous safety regulations related to keeping their employees safe and healthy at work. If OSHA finds out that a company is not complying with the regulations, the fines imposed can be hefty. Even worse, if a company’s failure to comply leads to injuries (or even death), the consequences are severe.

Still, companies should go beyond just meeting safety compliance. Safety protocols are, first and foremost, designed to keep a company’s employees safe. It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment for their employees. In addition, good safety practices that mitigate risk of injury have financial benefits for the company, such as a reduction in productivity losses. So, rather than it being the responsibility of a single person or department, safety should be about building a culture that engages everyone in safe and healthy practices.

This is where “lean” comes in. Lean safety is geared towards driving world-class safety programs using lean thinking and tools. But what is lean safety? How can it be used to create a safe workplace? And what are the benefits of this method? This article aims to explore the answers to these questions.

Keep reading or download the infographic.

What is lean safety?

What does “lean safety” mean? Lean safety can be defined as a method to identify and reduce waste in processes as a way to mitigate the risk of workplace accidents and illnesses.

The term “lean” is often associated with Toyota, the automobile company that introduced the world to lean manufacturing. As the business grew into a global brand, more businesses began studying its tools and methods to learn how a small company like Toyota was so efficient at becoming an international success.

Toyota created the “lean” concept to control costs and improve the efficiency of operations. The system is multi-faceted and goes beyond just safety. However, many of the core aspects of lean manufacturing, such as its focus on value, customer orientation, continuous improvement, elimination of waste, efficiency, and the questioning of existing wisdom, apply directly to safety.

Being lean in business means saving money and avoiding waste to improve efficiency. While the original concept of lean thinking, lean manufacturing, lean production, and lean safety arose from Toyota’s system, the idea has now been adapted and applied to many other types of businesses beyond manufacturing.

A related concept, often paired with lean thinking, is called kaizenKaizen is a Japanese word meaning “continuous improvement for the better.” It involves implementing small, gradual changes over time to improve processes. So, when business owners use kaizen to achieve lean safety, progress is inevitable.

Lean safety with the 6S program

The lean system originally came up with the 5S methodology – Seiri (sort), Seiton (Set in Order or Straighten), Seiso (Shine), Seiketsu (Standardize), and Shitsuke (Sustain). The 6th S, Safety, has been added to make it a lean 6S safety system. Safety is used to tie together the 5 S’s. Below are brief descriptions of each of the 6 S’s.

1. Sort

Sorting is the first step in the 6S methodology. Its goal is to reduce clutter and make it easier for essential work items to be located, thus improving efficiency. It basically involves getting rid of unnecessary items by separating what’s needed and what isn’t. It requires different departments to come together to ensure that all important items can be sorted out. The unnecessary items can be marked with “red tags” for immediate disposal, while “yellow tagging” is typically used for items that can be temporarily kept off-site for future use.

This step ensures that you only have what you really need, leaving more floor space to move around, and fewer obstacles to encounter. This greatly reduces the risk of tripping and falling, starting accidental fires, and any other avoidable hazards.

2. Straighten, or set in order

This step involves organizing the tools, instructions, parts, and work materials that were tagged as essentials in the first stage. The essential items are carefully identified and arranged in the most logical locations so that they are easily accessible when needed. This stage is aimed at optimizing the storage and retrieval of items in order to maximize space and accessibility.

Going through this step ensures your space is neat and proper, avoiding confusion over where to find materials or accidentally picking up the incorrect items. This is important because manufacturing errors can potentially cause costly and dangerous situations for employees and customers.

3. Shine

After removing the non-essential items and organizing the essential ones, the logical next step is cleanup. This step, called “shine”, involves getting rid of clutter and dust with inputs from all employees. Workers are also expected to keep their respective space organized and clean. Activities include cleaning equipment, furniture, and floors of the work-space, maintaining its pleasant appearance, and implementing steps to prevent excess dust and clutter from settling.

Cleanliness is directly related to safety. Small things like removing dust, fixing broken tiles, and putting random pieces of materials lying on the floor in their proper place can reduce risk of accidents like tripping.

4. Standardize

This step aims to create a new workplace norm by identifying best practices and establishing consistent procedures for the first three steps. It involves scheduling regular maintenance and cleaning so that the sorting, straightening, and shining processes become ingrained into the work routines. This can be done through visual reminders, routine inspections, or by setting aside some time every week to focus on the 6S practices.

Standardizing processes makes safety procedures habitual for workers. Following a simple schedule reduces the risk of accidents.

5. Sustain

This is, perhaps, the most challenging step of the 6S methodology as it focuses on discipline and regularity. The goal is to ensure that the standardized procedures created in the previous step are applied consistently over a long period, until it becomes habitual within the workplace. This can really only be effectively established by consistently following every step in the methodology and being disciplined about it.

6. Safety 

The final step of the 6S lean safety process is safety. This step is the most recent addition to the standard 5S methodology. It’s a crucial step geared towards identifying hazards and setting controls to keep employees safe during work operations. The goal is to mitigate health hazards. This includes reducing risk of injury in the workplace and ensuring that the work environment meets the safety standards required by OSHA regulations, and/or the regulations of your state safety program. This concept of safety should be at the forefront as you implement the other lean principles.

Benefits of 6S lean safety

When you implement a 6S lean safety plan for your business, you’ll find the benefits are well worth the effort. Here are several changes you can expect:

  • Greater efficiency due to streamlined processes and conservation of materials
  • Fewer and less severe employee injuries
  • Reduction in workers’ stress levels
  • Fewer trip hazards due to reduced clutter
  • Improved comfort as a result of a cleaner environment
  • Higher quality of work since materials are readily available
  • Improved profits since lean principles lead to efficient production

Overall, when you implement a lean safety plan, you can expect to experience increased productivity, a healthier bottom line, and a safer work environment that benefits everyone.

Thanks for reading! Please note that this content is intended for educational purposes only. As best practices change regularly, you should refer to your trusted advisor for specific counsel. If you’re a small business owner, learn more about workplace safety or check your workers’ comp rate in 3 minutes.