Adopting ‘Lean’ Safety Takes You Beyond Compliance

How to embed safety into every minute of every day—and continuously improve it.

Robert Hafey, a 25-year lean practitioner and consultant with 10 years specializing in safety, is working to change how business leaders think about workplace safety. He’s trying to help them understand how much more effective “lean safety” is, compared to “compliance safety.”

Writing in a recent issue of Target magazine, the quarterly publication of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME), he explains the difference. Compliance safety, he writes, “focuses almost exclusively on following OSHA or other regulatory agency rules.” In organizations that focus on compliance safety, he explains, “practices are ‘pushed’ from regulatory agencies to safety professionals, who then take the new or changed requirements to their management team and eventually to those who perform the work.”

While this approach is right as far as it goes, Hafey asserts that this top-down directive approach often causes safety professionals to feel as if they must police the workforce. In turn, their policing activity makes the workforce feel untrusted, which causes them to disengage.”

Worse, when an incident occurs, managers following the compliance safety approach tend to blame and then try to “fix” the behavior of the employee involved.

Lean safety is the mirror opposite. Writes Hafey: “Lean Safety utilizes the lean management philosophy and tools to intentionally create a continuous improvement safety culture that engages the workforce. …practitioners want to develop people and their understanding of lean and safety.”

Also, lean safety’s objective is to make work safer and easier by focusing on the work process—not the person. “Workers are observed, with their permission, to understand the physical effort required to perform the work task,” he writes. “They also are engaged to suggest how to change the work, so it is easier and simpler to execute.”

Hafey explains: “The changes in focus—from policing to engaging and from the person to the process—help to improve safety … because they build workforce trust and engagement.”

Most critical to lean safety, as it is for the lean philosophy, is respect for the people involved in the work. That means leaders work together with the operators as partners to ensure a safe work environment.

A cornerstone of the approach is the “lean safety gemba walk”—when a team of operators accompanied by a supervisor goes to a work area to watch others as they work. During the walk, the group looks for unsafe situations, and when they see one, starts a discussion with the worker on how to rectify it.

Before conducting a safety walk, the team is trained to look for work situations that could cause an injury and how to engage in non-blaming safety conversations. Unsafe conditions include tasks where employees are doing repetitive tasks, lifting or moving heavy objects, or straining to assemble components.

Hafey assures safety professionals that the need to comply with OSHA and other regulations will not go away—nor should it. He’s just trying to replace the “trust-destroying interaction that compliance safety encourages between managers and the workforce” with the trust-building approach of lean safety.

Leaders who embrace Lean Safety, he writes, quickly recognize the many benefits that result, which include:

  • An improved safety culture in which employees begin to take ownership of the company safety program and to make safety improvements.
  • The addition of positive, proactive safety metrics that help maintain the focus on achieving your safety goals.
  • A shift from a periodic to a continual focus on safety, through regular lean safety gemba walks. By making the walks routine, companies can continually identify safety issues that need to be addressed and make process improvements.
  • Improvement in compliance safety. Employees who are engaged as partners through the lean safety approach will be more willing to comply with new regulations.
  • A more engaged workforce. The trust built between management and the workforce fosters the mutual respect that’s necessary to achieve other types of change.

Additional Reading:

Hafey, Robert. (2019, August 30). Taking the Safe Path to Lean Success. Target Online. Available at

Hafey, Robert. 2015. Lean Safety Gemba Walks: A Methodology for Workforce Engagement and Culture Change. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group.

About the Author:

Patricia Panchak, president and editor of Panchak Media, Inc., brings 25 years of researching world-class leadership strategies to help executives implement strategies at the intersection of three powerful forces—digital technologies, lean management principles, and engaged employees. While each approach can be leveraged individually to create a disruptive competitive advantage, together, they become an unbeatable force. As the former editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, Panchak is a widely recognized authority on business management and leadership issues. Through extensive research, she provides a window into the best practices of world-class organizations and provides the knowledge companies need to put the challenge of global competition in perspective. She guides companies to understand not only what’s possible but what is necessary to drive their business forward. Connect with Pat on LinkedIn: Follow her on Twitter: @PatPanchak.

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