There are two recent news events that highlight the need for maintaining a safe workplace, Bumble Bee Tuna and Blue Bell Ice Cream.

Last month, Bumble Bee Tuna and two of their managers were charged with violating workplace safety regulations after an employee at one of Bumble Bee’s canning facilities was cooked to death in 2012 when the industrial oven that we has cleaning was loaded with 6 tons of tuna and turned on. Jose Melina was found two hours later after the oven was opened. The other is an outbreak of listeria that contaminated Blue Bell ice cream and has caused the deaths of three people and as a result, Blue Bell has recalled all of their products from store shelves, fired over 1,400 people, furloughed another 1,400, and shut down manufacturing facilities and distribution centers across the country in order to “…set a reset button and get it right”.

Both of these issues are issues of concern for the safety and well-being of customers and employees but the root cause of both of these problems is a failure to maintain proper maintenance standards. I don’t doubt for a second that both of these companies believed that they already had the right procedures in place for the proper way to clean and maintain their equipment. Bumble Bee says they have, “….an extremely aggressive safety management system aimed at delivering a safe and professional work environment for our employees, visitors and neighbors. We manage safety very seriously and have dedicated personnel at each manufacturing location to facilitate safety programs.” And in a statement, Blue Bell President and CEO, Paul Kruse, pledges to “[expand] our already robust system of daily cleaning and sanitizing of equipment.” But believing you have a “robust system” in place and actually having a robust system in place are two different things. How many factories have you been in or how many jobs have you worked where, yeah, there was a handbook or there might be some safety information on a poster somewhere around the facility but it’s got grease and grime caked on it and one of the corners is ripped down to fuzz, but it’s still there so it’s everyone’s responsibility to abide by it or, yeah, everyone’s aware of what the procedures are supposed to be but this is how we really do things? Just about everyone has at somepoint.

This is the value of 5S. Yes, 5S goes a long way to organize the factory to help increase production flow. And yes, it helps to keep things in order so that they’re easier to find and put away. But manufacturing is dangerous work, out in your factory right now there are probably a half a dozen things that can kill you and twice as many things that can send you to the hospital if you aren’t careful and this is where 5S can literally save your life by indicating potential hazards to be mindful of, preventative tool and machine maintenance to avoid breakdowns that not only stop production but could also be dangerous to the operator, keeping the work area clear of anything that might get tangled or cause tripping and then standardizing all of these cleaning and maintenance tasks to a daily and weekly schedule and internalizing these procedures until they become second nature and are a part of the routine.

Unfortunately it’s all too common for companies to have two sets of procedures: what’s in the handbook and what actually gets done. And despite a genuine, general concern on management’s part to not want to see any of their employees get hurt on the job, they don’t really seem to mind that the guidelines aren’t followed as long as things get done. That is until someone files a workman’s comp claim, or gets cooked in an oven, or the company has to publicly acknowledge that they have a bacteria laden production facility. Then they can point to the handbook or the grimy poster in the corner and say that things weren’t done according to the rules and lay people off, people who were just going along with years of “tribal knowledge” and doing what they had always been doing because no one ever sat down to actually think about what the truly proper procedures should be and who is responsible for what and then standardize those into a daily regiment with visual indicators that show if the work’s been completed or not.

Ultimately this comes down to respect for people. Lean companies practice 5S, not just for the benefits of flow, but because they recognize their responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their employees, so they work with them to develop the best, most effective standards for maintenance. Traditional companies (although not out looking to harm their employees) are concerned more with other things, mainly did we make enough widgets today without going over cost, and if so, then however they were made and whatever cleaning and maintenance had to get done in order to make the widgets is secondary.