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A great philosophy for conducting internal safety audits that work

by , 27 March 2015
I attended a safety management conference earlier this week, where one of the speakers mentioned the 'Gemba' philosophy and explained the benefits of such an approach.

I realised that while performing an internal audit, companies that adopted this method had an important quality on their side: None of their employees feared the inspection!

And analysing the impact of regular internal audits, this particular aspect is a success in itself!

Read on about the benefits of going to the "shop floor" of your company in order to see what's working and what's not, and I'll give you more information about 'Gemba'...

What is 'Gemba' and how can it help with health and safety

Gemba, is a Japanese term which means "the real place". In general, the Japanese detectives call a crime scene 'Gemba', and Japanese TV reporters may refer to themselves as reporting from gemba.

In terms of business, gemba refers to the place where value is created. In this case, the  "crime scene" is considered as the sales floor, the construction site, etc.

As such, the "gemba walk" refers to the action of going to see the actual process, understanding the work, asking questions, and learning. This is one fundamental part of 'Lean Management Philosophy'.

So how does gemba affect health and safety

Johan Van de Kerckhove wrote about the perspective of health and safety management, going all the way back to the 1990s when organisational factors in safety policy were becoming increasingly important.

At the same time, safety experts had to learn to understand the organisational aspects and take them into account in constructing safety programmes. Moreover, they had to keep in mind the fact that the view of organisations was and still is moving further and further away from the machine concept, placing a clear emphasis on less tangible and measurable factors such as organisational culture, behaviour modification, responsibility-raising or commitment.

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He reminds us of the fact that the economic crisis that started to impact upon the Western world in 1973 majorly influenced the thought and action in the field of management, quality and work safety.

The view shifted to the reduction of losses and the improvement of quality, focusing on the commitment and creativity of employees as the major competitive advantage in the economic competitive struggle.

Moreover, Kerckhove wrote, "limiting loss-making activities became an important means of improving operating results". This was translated through "total loss control" programmes.

An important aspect that also changed, according to ilo.org, is the safety policy which has shifted from post-factum accident analysis, with emphasis on the prevention of injuries, to a more global approach.

It aims at avoiding losses through management of safety, involving the interaction of people, processes, materials, equipment, installations and the environment. In the initial development period of safety policy, the emphasis was placed on a human error approach (which made people feel the burden of guilt).

At a later stage in the evolution of safety policy, it was recognised that employees carry out their work in a particular environment with well-defined working resources and the emphasis shifted in a technical-system approach.

Recently, Rob Hafey, international business consultant and author of Lean Safety, shared about the importance of safety in the workplace and about how 'lean safety gemba walks' manage to transform professional well-being from a compliance issue to something that continues to benefit employees and business.

He drew attention to the fact that lean safety gemba walks have nothing to do with compliance and he explained that rather than focus on procedure, the sole focus is the people doing the work.

This means that watching the actions required to complete work tasks makes it easier to identify improvement opportunities that make work safer and easier.

"When conducted in a respectful manner, by a skilled facilitator, these safety gemba walks have a dramatic impact on the safety culture of a business. They engage managers and employees in the continuous improvement of safety.  Employees now have a chance to make a difference in their safety culture rather than just be compliant with the rules", he explained.

Moreover, referring to the gemba or gemba lean philosophy, he also mentioned the benefit of making work safer and easier is cycle-time-reduction, which is the goal of lean; to reduce customer delivery cycle times by eliminating waste.

So how can this benefit your safety audits

What stuck with me was the fact that none of the employees were afraid of the internal audit and they did not feel the pressure of such a management policy. They understood that such an act is performed for their own benefit and safety! And I find it extremely important that no employee is criticised during an internal audit!

They collaborate on understanding the processes and they work together for a better and more efficient health and safety system.

A dream come true? Not really.

A smart and efficient plan implemented in an organisation? More like it.

This means that your business can move its lean efforts forward by focussing on safety improvement and that such approach takes safety from the realm of something you have to do (compliance) to something benefitting employees and the business.

A win-win result, as Hafey stated. And let us never forget that as long as we understand the importance of communication with the employees, combined with a health and safety management system that is OSH Act compliant, the advantage is on our side!

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