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Guest Post: Safety – Why I Stopped Kidding Myself

Mark’s note: Today kicks off my vacation and a stretch of guest posts that will run in this spot through October 12 (with the exception of a new podcast with Art Byrne that will appear later today or tomorrow). After these two weeks, you’ll see some returning guest bloggers and some new voices… like today’s post from Russell Watkins, all the way from the UK.

By Russell Watkins

I share a common trait with almost all lean-leaning people I know, in that I preach safety first, quality second. I have no doubt that most people carry the unshakeable belief that they behave safely enough but I’m not so sure about the reality…

A couple of weeks back I had a brief but diverting twitter exchange with Mark after informing one of my clients that, yes indeed, I had a TPM Kamishibai process at work in my garage at home. My client found this most amusing in a you-are-one-tragic-individual kind of a way. I subsequently tweeted a photograph of the home TPM process from my garage wall as a point of interest.

At the bottom of the TPM checksheet pinned to the wall were the words, “Safety First” emblazoned in red. Mark, quite fairly, queried why I needed to remind myself that safety comes first. My reply was “every day I remind myself. I owe it to my family and anyone I work with”.

This is not a trite reply or one of a particularly skilled man. It is a belief formed from peering into an unsavoury mirror and realising, several times during the past decade, that I didn’t entirely walk the walk. During that period, I have forced myself to become safer than 99% of people I work with.

The reason is that twice I have been on-site (or arrived within hours) in factories when a fatality has occurred. I looked into the distressed eyes of the two Managing Directors involved and saw men who knew that they would be haunted, for life, by the fact that this happened on their watch. Neither was in any way directly culpable – their facilities were no better or worse that most I’ve been in. Their loss could easily have been your loss.

Incidentally I still see these two men and both are enthusiastic leaders of real (as opposed to fake) safety in the workplace. They will stop machines, or shipments, or factories to correct an issue – no debate, just a reflex action now. They, without fail, demonstrate safe behaviour in negotiating factory terrain. The question “Why did it take a fatality to convert two fundamentally decent men?” hangs heavily in the air though.

My own conversion was completed two years ago when I stepped out of an ambiguously signed gangway into the path of a forklift truck. My good fortune was to test the skills of a driver with exceptional reflexes, a fact that he proved by stopping some 4 inches from my right ankle. Twenty years previously, as a callow youth, I had fallen from some parts racking having grabbed hold of a metal bin for support, a bin that duly plummeted after me. Luckily, in a reflexive act that I have yet to better, I compelled myself to roll out of the way in time.

So, my serious reflection has been about my need to act safe, every time. A daily reminder to keep my behaviour nudged the right way doesn’t hurt.

As for you, be honest now, and reflect on your own near misses and ask how safe you really are. Do you walk with hands in pockets? or on the phone? Do you always negotiate gangways at right angles so that you never, ever cut across working or storage areas? (so as not to introduce an abnormality to the working area, throw your associate off their muscle memory and trip over low lying hazards or bang your head). Do you interrupt your people mid-cycle?

Whether in the factory, office, hospital or construction site; how many slightly unsafe items / acts do you walk past banking on the fact that 99 times out of 100 no harm will come to pass.

If you really want a cautionary tale beyond personal safety behaviour, dig around in the Three Mile Island accident or the Challenger Shuttle Disaster to understand something about systemic failure and the “Swiss Cheese Model” of accident causation. That’ll open your eyes.

Please be safe out there.

About Russell Watkins: Russell (@LeanSempai) is a director of Sempai Consultancy Services, a business formed to assist organisations that are serious about improving the short and long-term performance of their business. He has held various operations, materials and lean manufacturing positions within the automotive, aerospace and construction industries. He first experienced the harsh training of Toyota Japanese engineers in the 1990s, and his work since has taken him to businesses – shopfloors and boardrooms – throughout the UK, Europe, the US, China, India, Japan and South America. He is the author of the book Adventures in Leanland, reviewed here by fellow guest blogger Christina Kach.


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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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