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Crazy psychology – making the workplace tick and safer too!

Case Study:  By Dennis Keay

Is it an absolutely crazy idea to put carpet in the lunch room of a very oily manufacturing facility…where lots of oil is used during the manufacturing process and oil on the shop floor is common place?

Most people would think so…even the workers initially! But it was done with a very specific goal in mind…to improve safety and to reduce costs…and it worked!

Here’s what happened:

I did some work with a very large steel production business and one of its service centres was devoted to metal-slitting where coils of steel sheet are slit into narrower rolls. A lot of oil is used in this process. It’s applied to the steel as it’s being unrolled and slit.  It splashes and drips, and the machines themselves often leak. It’s traditionally a messy business!

Two main issues were to be addressed:

  1. Safety:
    Oil on the shop floor presents a very real safety hazard – oily boots on a concrete floor can be like ice-skates.
  2. Cost:
    The cost of oil lost from the production process was significant—many thousands of dollars each year! Oil was being lost through leaks and spills, and left on the finished product.

One question was, “How do we get the workers proactively involved in minimising the oil wastage, stopping the leaks, and improving safety by cleaning the floor immediately if any oil lands there?”

To get people proactively involved in change means finding out what’s in it for them…WIIFT. Often, ‘more money’ is touted as a motivator, but that motivation is usually short lived. There are other motivators that have a deeper psychological impact…PRIDE and FEAR. I find that pride is the best way to go wherever possible. Honest appreciation and recognition for a job well-done goes a long way. It’s not that difficult…just treat others as you’d like to be treated. A sincere and heart-felt ‘thank you’ is a simple example. But let’s go further and look for continual WIN-WINs in a virtuous cycle.

I think WIN-WIN solutions are best, so finding out what workers value is a great start. How do you do that?  Speak with them…ask them what they might change at work if they had the opportunity. After all, they spend a large chunk of their life there, so making the workplace a more satisfying place to be has a number of benefits for both them and the employer. Better retention of people is one that the employer can expect.

Here’s some things they wanted:

  • A quiet, air-conditioned lunch room with a fridge and microwave oven. That’s because the factory was noisy and very hot in summer and cold in winter.
  • A safer more pleasant working environment in general.

Here’s something the business wanted:

  • A safer work environment with higher production volumes and reduced oil consumption.

The WIN-WIN

The WIN-WIN solution was to build a dual purpose room that met more than the basic requirements of an air-conditioned lunch room with fridge and microwave.

The room was called the ‘Reliability Centre’, and it included a computer with maintenance management software installed. The idea behind this was that those responsible for machine maintenance would much prefer to work in an air-conditioned room scheduling and planning preventive maintenance rather than working under a hot and broken slitting machine at short notice.

Preventive maintenance is usually quicker and easier to do than breakdown maintenance, and, because it’s scheduled, there’s less time pressure to get the machine up and running again right in the middle of a production run. So, preventive maintenance is a WIN for the maintenance crew. Of course, it’s also less expensive than breakdown maintenance, so that’s another bonus for the company.

The name ‘Reliability Centre’ was chosen for psychological reasons, because it sounds more professional than ‘Maintenance Office’ and the focus is on machine reliability rather than machine maintenance.

But why put carpet on the floor? 

Well, that was another psychological part of the exercise. Two parts, actually.  Often, having air-conditioned carpeted offices for Management / Office-staff helps create an ‘us and them’ type mentality. That’s something we were trying to avoid.

Also, we were trying to help create a greater sense of pride within the workplace and show that management respected that the workers would try to keep the carpet clean. They did! They cleaned up any oil spills or drips as soon as they were noticed, and of course, tried to prevent these in the first place.

In the above example, the investment required to build the Reliability Centre was easily funded by improved productivity (due to reduced breakdowns) + savings in oil expense. There were also a number of other WIN-WIN pride enhancing initiatives that made the workplace a much nicer place to work in.

The Point

The point is, continuous improvement is much more about the people than it is about the business improvement tools. Psychology is important! Honest respect for people at all levels is important!

Good leadership is about finding ways to foster teamwork across all parts of the business and trying to create WIN-WIN’s for everyone. Some of that includes breaking down ‘us and them’ barriers, and engaging everyone in daily continuous improvement activities to make their working lives better, while helping the business become as competitive in the market as possible.

I often hear business leaders say, ‘our people are our greatest asset’. It’s something I know to be true. However, I also see many businesses that miss great opportunities because they don’t treat their people as their greatest assets…and they often lose those great assets to other businesses.  Good workers are in high demand…so I’d encourage you to truly value them and work with them to develop them and keep them. Again, treat them as you’d like to be treated. If you’re already doing that, you already know the benefits…and if not, you may be surprised by what’s possible to achieve.

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