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How Lean Can Make Workplaces Safer and Healthier

by Jeffrey Pfeffer
December 16, 2019

How Lean Can Make Workplaces Safer and Healthier

by Jeffrey Pfeffer
December 16, 2019 | Comments (1)

(In today's WLEI podcast, we talk with Stanford Graduate School of Business Jeffrey Pfeffer about his new book, Dying for a Paycheck. The following material is adapted from that conversation.)

My sense of how Lean could make workplaces safer and healthier goes far deeper than the issue of employee engagement. I think that's a part of it, but let’s be clear that one of the reasons why people work so many hours, and why work is as stressful as it is, is that there's a lot of waste everywhere.

The organizations that are trying to improve the health and wellbeing of their workforce are building in better work by starting with job design. They recognize that you cannot make your work better and healthier if they leave all aspects of what that involves off the table. Unfortunately, most companies today say: "Well, work is the way it is and we do what we do for whatever reasons why we do it: good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons. And we're going to try to remediate the stress that the work causes by nap pods and meditation and better salad bars or whatever."

And this approach is woefully insufficient. The companies that are really going to solve the problem of unsafe work, just as they've done this for physical safety, have to begin by thinking about every aspect of the job and job design. And that's where I think there is a great deal of compatibility between the principles of Lean and what I'm talking about. Making work safer and healthier begins with basically redesigning the work, and eliminating the stuff that is harmful, unnecessary, stressful, could be automated, and so forth. Until you do that, nothing much is going to happen.

Root cause analysis, which is at the heart of lean principles, applies to this situation powerfully. If I said to you, "I want you to make work safer in a physical sense," you wouldn't just give people Band-aids or bandages or something. You would actually say, "How do I redesign the use of saws, the use of ladders? How do I redesign the physical environment to make the workplace safer? How do I put guards on tools so that people won't get their fingers caught in them?" You would redesign the equipment and the work. Well, just as we've redesigned the physical equipment, we have to be willing to redesign the psychosocial aspects of work if we're going to make it psychologically healthier and less stressful.

By the way, Barry-Wehmiller CEO Bob Chapman does something which I think is unusual in today's world. He understands that when people go to work for an organization, they have flipped their psychological and physical wellbeing in the care of that organization. Bob advocates passionately for being a good steward of people's health and wellbeing—which is unlike most organizations, which neither acknowledge nor accept the responsibility for the wellbeing of the people who work for them.

For many years, HR people have essentially said, "Your career is your responsibility. We have no responsibility to offer you employment security." We used to celebrate lists of “great places to work” (companies which would generally have no layoff policies). Those types of lists are mostly gone. And people basically have been told to fend for themselves. Companies accept little responsibility for the wellbeing of their workforce, and it shows.

One of the principles of the quality movement is that the things that get measured get attention, and subsequently, get improvement, while the things that are ignored get worse. So I can't understand why anybody is surprised that the condition of the workplace in terms of a psychosocial aspects is as bad as it is. Nobody's paying attention to it.

Jeff's new book is Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance–and What We Can Do About It.

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1 Comment | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani December 16, 2019
2 People AGREE with this comment

I concur. In 2012 I wrote a little-noticed e-book titled Lean IS Healthcare: A New Interpretation of Lean Management for the 21st Century. From the book description: "Lean IS Healthcare is a dramatic new interpretation of Lean management… Lean management, when correctly understood and practiced… [can] improve the health and well-being of people in organizations… as part of a wider strategy to both improve the health and wellness of all employees and lower healthcare costs in organizations." The contents of that e-book is now contained in a book titled: "Lean Is Not Mean" (Lessons 67 and 68).

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