The nexus between safety and quality is not always clear, especially to those outside of manufacturing looking in, but there is no question it exists. My friend Michael Taubitz has made a career of understanding it from his perspective as a safety director and lean leader at GM until he finally got fed up with them and struck out on his own. While the engineering jury is still out concerning the precise technical causes of the oil fiasco in the Gulf are still to be determined, the fact that BP obviously designed and installed an incapable drilling process, and the fact that BP has by far the worst safety record in the oil industry are not coincidental. Either processes are designed well or they are not.
Safety, quality, inventory flow, machine maintenance and ultimately total cost are hopelessly intertwined. It is not possible to be good at some and ignore others and end up with the best cost. Either you understand the overall process and design it well in every dimension, or you don't. And when you don't and people get hurt, defective products are built, or machines break down – which they inevitably will – the cost of those problems is bound to dwarf the perceived savings from ignoring those dimensions.
Typically the focus is narrowly on direct labor efficiency – and the low direct labor cost ends up down the drain as companies have to pay for quality inspection, sorting, machine breakdowns, or for the medical and legal costs of injuries. That certainly is the case with BP's debacle, although indications are they were operating on the cheap with the materials they used in their equipment – end up being the most expensive material cost saving in history probably.
The recent news that thesuicide count is up to 13 at Apple's buddies over at FoxConn comes as no surprise either, and it is inevitable that Apple will have no choice but to dump them sooner or later. The cost of doing nothing will be to so tarnish Apple that even their loyal legions on college campuses will abandon them, and the cost of doing the work right at FoxConn will drive Apple elsewhere – but the price will be paid soon enough somewhere along the line.
The Johnson & Johnson mess is a better example. I didn't have to do much research before I knew I could trash them without fear of contradiction. When a plant is not fixing holes in the ceiling and using duct tape rather than repairing pipes correctly, product defects and cost problems are inevitable. No one takes a cheap, seat of the pants approach to buildings and equipment, then turns around and does a world class job managing quality. Either they do things with excellence – or they don't. There's no great middle ground there
I am often questioned about how I can really assess a company in one day. It really isn't that tough. When you walk into a plant and see safety guards missing from machines or employees without their glasses; or you see covers off of machines and hoses leaking, or you see inventory in the aisles or big sorting or rework operations, there is no question the company has a big cost problem and that quality and safety are poor. The data supporting that fact may take some digging to find, but make no mistake – it is always the case and the data is there somewhere.
This is not BP's first disaster – it is merely the most recent in a series. Nor was the J&J plant being closed an anomaly – it was just the last straw in a pattern of FDA violations. And this is hardly the first time - nor will it be the last – FoxConn announced it was appalled at how some middle managers are treating employees; or that Steve Jobs has had to make excuses for them. They have been appalled and Jobs has been explaining them away for years over the way middle management has been treating employees.
On the other hand, I have never seen a truly excellent, truly lean company with a safety problem, or having caused an environmental catastrophe. The combination of excellent quality and delivery with lousy safety is not possible. It all comes down to design of processes and the engagement of people. They are either designed to achieve excellent results – or they are designed by short sighted people to optimize some immediate, narrow dimension of cost. But the leaders of excellent companies don't ever appear in the news having to express their shock and concern over the damage their companies have done.