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Dirty, Dumb, or Dangerous (+ 5-Page Lean PDF +MP3)

One of the basic tenets of continuous improvement is respect for people. A way to do this is to look for and eliminate the tasks that are ‘dirty, dumb, or dangerous’.

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Unfortunately, people have become used to doing tasks that have some or all of these components. Think of the term ‘dirty, dumb, or dangerous’ as a filter. When you look at tasks, try to see anything falls into any of these categories. Chances are, the ‘dirty, dumb, or dangerous’ tasks contain a large amount of waste. That makes them good candidates for kaizen activity, or for automation. Since ‘dirty, dumb, and dangerous’ tasks are full of waste, strong leaders have a vested interest in eliminating them.

Dirty jobs are the easiest to recognize. Oddly enough, they also seem to be the ones that are the most tolerated. Instead of accepting messes, try to find ways to prevent dirt in the first place—vacuums to pick up loose debris, shields to keep spray inside machines, separating operators from untidy processes, or redesigning procedures to eliminate messy steps. Put good 5S in place. Office processes are generally cleaner, but you can still do things to make cleanup easier: put recycling bins right next to copiers, keep clutter off desks to make dusting easier, or eliminate flat surfaces so dust has no place to fall.

Dangerous jobs are a little trickier. Most companies want to follow the law and they want to keep workers safe. Still, sometimes unsafe conditions go unnoticed (i.e. a broken guard is not detected or an old machine may not have up to date safety equipment installed).

Sometimes safety regulations are disregarded. In today’s highly competitive marketplace, there is a tremendous pressure on employees to be productive. Workers often respond to these demands by doing unsafe acts—lifting heavier loads than they should or climbing on a warehouse shelf rather than using a ladder. Leaders should train themselves not to tolerate unsafe conditions, even if there is a productivity hit associated with the decision. Apart from being just plain wrong to put employees at risk, you enter shaky legal ground.

Dumb jobs are the toughest to deal with. That’s because over time they like to camouflage themselves as worthwhile tasks. The person performing it becomes numb to it, so doesn’t realize how wasteful it is. These are the jobs that are disrespectful to employees because they don’t value their intelligence. Examples: staring at a machine just in case there is a problem, or filling out the same information on multiple forms.

Documenting processes goes a long way towards eliminating the dumb tasks. There is just something about actually writing a process down that makes the dumb tasks jump out. Plus, frontline leaders often review documentation, so they are more likely to ask questions when they see something unusual.

Don’t allow dirty, dumb, and dangerous tasks in your work areas.

  • Make safety a partnership. Employees and managers may disagree on a safety issue. For example, when a team creates a work cell, it will often remove chairs from a process. Employees may feel that standing all day creates too much wear and tear on their knees. Managers may point to multiple examples where people stand all day for work. Rather than create an impasse, look for alternatives—rotating jobs mid-day, cushioned mats on the floor, or the like. The key is to address the issue rather than dismiss it.
  • Don’t let the law be the only criteria for danger. OSHA and other regulations exist, but they are not perfect. Create a safe workspace, not just a legally compliant one.
  • Dirty tasks not only reduce morale, but they have the potential to cause injury, particularly to the skin and eyes. Respiratory problems can also occur when dirt gets airborne. Cleanup takes time that teams could be using for production. Dirty workspaces might even cost the company sales when a customer comes through and decides to go with a more organized competitor.
  • Managers might not really know the purpose of a task, so can’t easily spot ‘dumb’ they way they can ‘dirt’. Leaders should stay familiar with processes so they fully understand what their employees are doing and why they are doing it.

Be careful about getting numb to dirty, dumb, or dangerous tasks. It is easy to just start accepting these tasks as “the way things are.” Work with your boss, fix them on your own, or try to get on any kaizens in your work area to make sure the problems are addressed.

If employees see that leaders are indifferent to these issues, the workers are less likely to commit to continuous improvement efforts. The best way to eliminate dirty, dumb, and dangerous tasks for your team is to be present in the work area (gemba) frequently. You can’t identify problems if you aren’t around to see them. 

You should also make sure you are familiar with the work instructions your team is using. Audit the process with a specific eye for dirty, dumb and dangerous tasks. Communicate with your team. Ask what tasks send them home sore at the end of the day. Ask where they got their clothes dirty. Find out what tasks irritate them. Then, use continuous improvement to eliminate the problems.

  • Dirty, dumb, and dangerous tasks show a lack of respect for people.
  • Dumb tasks can masquerade as worthwhile ones.
  • Don’t let the law be the only guideline for safety.

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