Improving Workplace Safety with Lean Manufacturing Principles


Lean Manufacturing and Safety ImageA lot of people are familiar with the lean manufacturing method known as 5S. If you're not familiar with it, it's a method for straightening and organizing a workplace. Like all lean manufacturing concepts, it's intended to create efficiency.

But of course, a more organized, clutter-free work area also improves safety. This is well known and I'm saying nothing new. Whether you use 5S or not, I'm sure that housekeeping is a big part of your safety training and your safety program in general. But if you're not using 5S currently, you may find some of the techniques will be a helpful addition to your current housekeeping efforts.

In addition to 5S, you can use other lean concepts to improve safety at the workplace as well. These include kaizen and kaizen events. And again, even if you're not using the "lean" name for each, you may be doing something similar at work already. Or, if you're not, maybe now's a time for you to add a wrinkle or two to your current approach.

In this post, we'll take a closer look at 5S and two other ideas to investigate improving workplace safety with lean manufacturing tips, plus include a link to a general "What Is Lean Manufacturing?" article. Be sure to check out the linked resources embedded in the article, because they lead to substantive, helpful resources, and please download the free 5 principles of lean manufacturing infographic at the bottom as well.

Lean Manufacturing + Safety

We'll take a look at three different lean methods, give a quick explanation of each, will describe how they can be applied to safety, and will provide links to fuller explanations of each method. The methods are:

  • 5s
  • Kaizen
  • Kaizen Events
  • Value Stream Mapping

If you've already used one, some, or all of these for your own safety program, we invite you to use the comments section below to share your thoughts and experiences.

5S and Safety

As you may know or may have guessed, 5S is a five-step method for organizing a work place, and each step begins with the letter S. The original steps are Japanese words, but we'll include the English translations below:

  • Sort
  • Straighten
  • Shine
  • Standardize
  • Sustain

And here's a little further explanation of each:


Go through the work area, identify items that are needed and items that are not, and remove the unnecessary items.


Once the unnecessary items are gone, put the necessary items in the best possible place. Many companies extend this idea and use tape or other markings to make it clear where everything is supposed to go.

Below is a short sample from the online 5S training course by Convergence Training. It covers the second S--straighten--and demonstrates putting things in their place and marking their location.

Shine (also known as sweep or sanitize):

Clean up the workplace and set up a regular schedule for keeping it clean.


Now that things are sorted, straightened, and shined, create procedures so you can be sure things stay that way. (If you are familiar with lean, you already known it's big on creating standard ways of doing things. If not, here's your introduction to that idea.)


Make sure everyone's following those new standardized procedures for keeping the workplace sorted, straightened, and shined. Or, as we might say in the US, spick-and-span.

But what about safety and 5S?

Many say that safety is automatically a part of 5S. Just follow 5S and you've got yourself a safer workplace. It's easy enough to see that logic.

Others, however, think it's worth adding a "safety" component to each of the five steps. For example, when you sort, you can create a separate pile for EHS hazards, and when you straighten, you can consider things like ergonomics.

And still others think after you've gone through the full 5S process, you could add a sixth step exclusively for safety issues.

Choose the method that seems best to you.

To read more about 5S (and its connection to safety), see our 5S + Safety = Lean 6S article.

Kaizen and Safety

Kaizen, as you may have guessed, is another Japanese word. It translates to something like "change for the better."

The primary ideas behind kaizen are:

  • A continual process of improvement
  • Making small improvement after small improvement, with great total effects over time
  • Empowering workers to make changes and/or suggest changes in their work areas

It's easy enough to see how kaizen can create a safer workplace. Give workers the power to address safety hazards when they see them, or to immediately report safety suggestions to their supervisor. Continue making small safety improvement after safety improvement. And over time, see the large total effect of many small safety changes.

What do you do at work now? What are the incentives for workers to report safety hazards? Is there a clear and defined method for doing so? Do you follow through quickly and let workers know you followed through? All of these can help you put a little "kaizen" into your safety.

Click to read more about our kaizen here.

Kaizen Events and Safety

A kaizen event is not the same as kaizen. Although the aim of both is to make a change for the better, here are a few critical differences:

  • Kaizen is an ongoing, continual process. A kaizen event is short-term (typically 3-5 days) with a definite beginning and ending point.
  • Kaizen involves all workers. A kaizen event involves a smaller kaizen team.
  • Kaizen involves the entire work area or process. A kaizen event typically focuses on one area or process.

So, you can see how a kaizen event could help you run a short-term, focused, team-based effort to improve safety. Because of the short-term approach of a kaizen event, it may be best-suited for one work area or process, but that depends on the size of your company.

Maybe you already do something like this already. Many companies have a weekly safety meeting, hold top-to-bottom safety inspections, perform job hazard analyses (JHAs), or other things that fit within this "kaizen event" mold even if they don't use the name.

Click to read more about kaizen events.

Value Stream Mapping and Safety

Value stream mapping is the process of inspecting your entire production process, looking for (so you can then remove) waste.

By inspecting your production processes closely this way, you can root out not only waste but also safety and health hazards as well.

Read more about this in our What Is Value Stream Mapping in Lean? article.

Lean, Safety, and Learning

Lean manufacturing has always placed a strong emphasis on learning. And today's safety practitioners are now keenly aware that learning is fundamental in occupational safety and health as well. That's why lean and safety go so well together.

To give this more thought, check out our Safety and the Learning Organization article or our recorded webinar we did for the ASSP on Integrating Learning into Safety.

For More about Lean Manufacturing

Want some more information about lean manufacturing? Try the resources below:

What Is Lean? Introducing Employees to Lean Manufacturing

Conclusion: Improving Workplace Safety with Lean Manufacturing Principles

There you go: three lean manufacturing techniques that you can borrow from your friends in production to make a safer, more incident-free workplace-5S, kaizen, and a kaizen event.

But what are your experiences? Have you knowingly used any of these techniques as part of your safety program? Or, even if you didn't know the names and haven't used the techniques, have you doing similar stuff? If so, how did it work and what were your experiences? We'd love to hear about it. Just drop a note in the comments section below.

Please let us us know if you'd like more help with your safety training solutions at work, including online safety training courses and/or a safety training learning management system. We've also got online training courses on lean manufacturing for you too, naturally!

Want to Know More?

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