From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Lean and Ergonomics: a Natural Fit

“To everything there is a season … .” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

As lean times demand lean thinking, the season would seem to be now for the Toyota-stamped management philosophy called Lean. The Ergonomics Report™ explores Lean with one of its ergonomist disciples, and looks at the challenges of convincing companies clinging to traditional made-in-America management philosophies to take what is often described as “the Lean journey.”

Japan, and particularly carmaker Toyota, can be said to have mapped the journey, but it started in several countries. Edward Deming, an American, for instance, took various Lean-enshrined concepts to Japan when he couldn’t get the ear of company managers in America.

Peter Budnick, Ph.D., CPE, the principal of Ergoweb Inc., lectures widely on the benefits of taking the Lean journey in any economic season. His presentation describes Lean as a flexible and sustainable management system that focuses on continuous improvement through waste reduction and respect for people.

Lean Pillars

Outlining the pillars of Lean, Dr. Budnick underlined the areas where it overlaps ergonomics and contrasted it with entrenched and often detrimental attitudes in the traditional batch production manufacturing sector. “I’m going to argue that ergonomics is a natural fit, if not the same thing, as Lean,” he said. “We are really trying to improve human performance. That’s what we do as ergonomists. We often get sidelined or caught in the trappings of injury prevention. Certainly that’s important, but preventing injuries is only a small part of what we do as ergonomists – or what we should be doing as ergonomists.  We really are trying to improve human performance, as I said, and you can take that further in the Lean thinking. [Lean experts are] going to say you’re also trying to improve the human condition." 
Lean identifies three types of waste, he explained. “Muda is a general [Japanese] term … for any activity that doesn’t add value or is unproductive.” Many companies try Lean, claiming they are reducing muda, he said, without paying their dues to the other aspects of waste. These are mura, waste caused by unevenness or inconsistency in physical matter or human spiritual conditions, and muri, caused by “overburden, unreasonableness or absurdity.” 

He notes that mura and muri travel the same path as ergonomics. “When they say overburden, they are talking about people and machinery. And in an American company, we will never overburden a machine. We will go to great lengths to protect machinery because it’s an asset that shows up on our balance sheet. That’s something the accountants can track. But at the same time, we don’t even seem to think twice about overburdening the human in the process. The Lean practitioners will say, ‘uh oh, you’d better think about that because, if you are hurting your people, you talk about assets, they are your real assets.’  Machines are replaceable. People aren’t. And there’s a philosophical difference right there.”

Ergonomics Methodology in a Lean World

From the 30,000-foot view, he said, “down to the focus on where, in practical terms, we integrate ergonomics,” there are macro and  micro issues. “The macro is buying into the philosophy that humans really are valuable to the company or the organization, and we should do everything we can to maximize their ability without hurting them in any way.  I don’t mean hurting just in the physical injury sense, but they need to be engaged. They need to be supported and motivated to show up at work each day. The overburdening part, the muri, is really pinned down to the level of, well, how much should we be having these people lift, and how many repetitions [are] appropriate, what forcde levels, etc.? So that’s where ergonomics starts to directly tie in, at a practical level, to the Lean system, [the] Lean philosophy.”

The Budnick presentation lists seven forms of waste – transportation, waiting, overproduction, defects, inventory, movement and extra processing. Explaining “transportation“ and “waiting,” Dr. Budnick said: “Imagine, if you don’t have good flow in your process, and somebody else who is supplying me doesn’t get me my parts on time, and I stand there waiting. What happens? Well, I start to daydream a little bit, and I lose my focus, and when things pick up again, I’m more likely to make an error – which is a quality issue.” The psychological aspect for ergonomics enters the Lean equation at this point, he noted, emphasizing that high quality, high productivity and safety fit together in Lean to make a good sustainable process.
Dr. Budnick pointed out that the “movement” on the list means movement at the worker level. “If I have to walk 10 feet when, if I were a little more organized, I could walk five feet, think of all the waste in my process. At the employee level, with proper training and engagement by the employer, they will begin to recognize and take the responsibility and initiative to do all this on their own.” He observed that when movement is reduced, the burden on the human body could also be reduced. “In the Lean world, bending over to pick something up off the floor, versus picking something up at waist level is looked at wasted motion, wasted movement. The time it takes to bend all the way to the floor is wasted, so why not give it to me at the most productive location?”

We talk about the same thing in ergonomics, he said. “It’s also a burden on the body to bend all the way over, versus lifting from waist height.” This is one example of the direct connection “between that movement type of waste and the physical ergonomics that we’re most familiar with.”

He described “defects” as a very important concept in the Lean world. “If anybody sees a defect at any time, it stops right there.  And they will literally shut down the production process until it is fixed. And that way their quality is often far superior to a batch production approach, because in a batch approach, people are more likely to let defects pass through. They’re being measured by how many pieces come out at the end, not whether they are good or not.” In the Lean world, that attitude is regarded as stupid, he explained. “If you keep building a product with a defect, you are doing a whole lot of wasteful activities. You might as well stop it right there.”

Lean Innovation

The advice against pursuing unasked-for refinements and features would seem to kill innovation, but doesn’t, according to Dr. Budnick. “Many Lean companies are also very innovative. Little did I know I would actually come to like my cell phone that can do email, and has a camera, and all these features I didn’t really want when I was thinking of buying a phone. But I found them valuable in the end, primarily because the company that manufactures my phone went to great lengths to make sure these features were truly usable and valuable to the customer. Innovations have to happen. I think the difference in Lean is that they are well-calculated innovations. And they are well user-tested.”
He observed that Lean companies “are very, very much in tune with their customers … doing what we would do in ergonomics – user based studies – [and] working directly with people.” They test ideas with people, asking if the user finds an idea valuable, and how much he or she is willing to pay for it. “So they’re practicing ergonomics right there – ergonomics in the broadest sense.”

A “Tough Sell”

Toyota’s storied business success and a tour through the other pillars of now-venerable Lean philosophy invited a question: Why is Lean a “hard sell” in America? Responding, Dr. Budnick blamed the entrenched business culture here. “The US has this strong propensity to think in short term. And I think that’s driven in large part by our economic system, the way our stock market works, on [a] quarterly basis. … It pushes companies into making poor decisions to improve short term performance at the expense of long term performance.” He observed that companies embracing the Lean journey have a very long term view. “They’re certainly aware of the short term financial reports, but their thinking is very long term.”
Toyota had a 50 year plan when the company entered the United States markets in the early 70s, he said, and it has actually carried out that plan. “Of course it’s not a detailed plan, because you cannot make 50-year detailed plans, but you can keep a focus on the future and where you are headed. And then you can get everybody in that company to understand that vision and support that vision, then you are far more likely to succeed on that path than you are on the short term, lurching forward and backward” like many US companies.

“False” Lean

Some companies buy into Lean, he said, but only to an extent. “Many horribly misunderstand and misapply Lean theory and [what is done] in the Lean world.” He noted that many companies embrace tools that are common in the Lean world – tools like 5S, Six Sigma, Just-in-Time, Kan-Ban, SMED, Value Stream Mapping, Poke-Yoka, Spaghetti Diagrams. “These are methods that can be applied to improving productivity, efficiency and quality, which are inherent goals of Lean, but [the companies] neglect the philosophy that makes these tools work over the long run.

There are two main components,” he explained, continuous improvement and respect for people – employees, suppliers, communities and consumers. Companies that have bought properly into Lean “think of things in a life cycle approach.  Start to finish. That’s why they call it a journey. You’re never done.”

A Dearth of Enlightenment

A challenge of connecting ergonomics and Lean, even with people who claim they are practicing ergonomics, he said, is that they have a very limited understanding of the scope of ergonomics. They will “get stuck” in the aspects of ergonomics that are about physical injury. “So, what I do an awful lot is to try to expand our profession’s understanding of what ergonomics is, and it’s not just about injuries. It’s about the spectrum of human interactions with the process, mental and physical, from the designers and producers all the way to the person who has to dispose of the product. It’s a human-centered, systematic approach.”  

He notes that many people don’t understand what Lean really is, and many don’t understand what ergonomics really is. “So enlightenment needs to occur all around the topic here.”
Pairing “Lean” and “Toyota” on Google yields 1.5 million results. The search engine represents one path to enlightenment for politicians and others who might be in a position to redirect companies to Lean. Expert lecturers are also helping to spread the word. But very little of “the word” is likely to come from committed Lean companies, according to Dr. Budnick. “What you’ll find is the people in the Lean world, they’re just busy doing the right thing. They’re not busy trying to tell other people how to do what they do, although Toyota does a remarkable job sharing their knowledge. … Whereas, the companies doing the wrong thing are very likely to show up. They’re going to try to buy themselves time, and buy themselves support for the wasteful practices they have, rather than doing it right on their own internally, they’re going to seek external support, like the bailouts we’re seeing in today’s economic turmoil.”

Many companies are faced with a do-or-die situation here, he said. “They either cut costs and improve their connection with their customers, or they’re going to go out of business. You’ll notice that companies that are on a true Lean Journey are far less likely to cut costs by cutting people and jobs.”

Source: Dr. Peter Budnick

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2009-04-15.