Continuous improvement, lean manufacturing, eliminating waste, and reducing risk are now part of the culture for many companies, enabling them to sustain and improve their overall performance and bottom line. Continuous improvement (CI) teams are often tasked with “blitzing” an operation or assembly line to improve throughput. During this process, improvements are quick and constant. Our challenge, as ergonomics professionals, is not just to keep up with the fast-paced environment, but also to align efforts with the CI teams to develop solutions to ergonomic challenges, as both activities address waste.
Workplace ergonomics and continuous improvement activities have similar goals, and each requires the other to effectively attain those goals. For a lean program to be successful, a basic stability of the process must be achieved. Basic stability implies a general predictability and consistent availability in terms of the 4Ms: manpower, machines, materials, and methods. CI teams do a good job analyzing machines, material, and methods, but many don’t have the tools to effectively measure musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) risk exposure to employees and assess if the manpower is capable of repeatedly meeting Takt time (the pace of production required to meet customer demand).
Designing for the human element optimizes process stability and operational performance, which can be accomplished in a few simple ways:
- Train CI teams in ergonomics principles and how to incorporate ergonomic design guidelines as they modify current operations during any blitz. For example, during a blitz, the team may be tasked with determining the most efficient way to present parts. As they work through it, they can design the parts presentation by incorporating design guidelines, such as retrieval height (between 38″ and 49″ above the standing surface) and reach distance (within 16″).
- Provide MSD risk assessment tools to measure baseline risk and risk levels after the blitz. Integrate metrics, such as percent risk reduction, as part of the lean dashboard that reports blitz results.
- Provide or leverage an existing system to track improvement activities and to pull metrics for reporting.
- Build an understanding of common value for the lean teams. Most ergonomic issues, such as excessive reaching, bending, and walking, and double-handling of materials, are non-value-added activities and have a time penalty associated with them. Time penalties, calculated using the Methods-Time Measurement technique, show that every 6″ of extra reach costs 0.4 seconds (roundtrip), and each extra walking step costs 0.5 seconds. By using the design guidelines, the lean team will not only be able to improve ergonomics, but will also reduce cycle times.
Workplace ergonomics and CI activities address similar concerns and should piggyback on each other for success. Leveraging and supporting CI efforts will not just improve ergonomic conditions, but will mature your ergonomics program to a more proactive state.