Can Kanban practices be used to prevent burn out?

In the last three years, BIT had 4 cases of employee burn out. Three of them were young employees, holding an operative level; one was a middle manager around 40 years hold.
Paul, the quality coordinator of BIT, who has also the role of Health and Security (H&S) agent, believes it is time to insert the prevention of psychological risks (PSR)  in the QMS of the Company

H&S in the ISO 9001:2015.

The QMS of BIT is based on the ISO 9001:2015 norm.
Despite this norm introduces the concept of risk-based thinking just from the beginning, refers to the engagement of people as a principle of the QMS and employees are considered resources of the Company, it does not mention explicitly  the importance to prevent risks related to human resources.
With a quite effort, we could introduce the prevention of risks of human resources as a need and requirement of an (important) interested party (the employee) but Paul had the strong feeling that in this ISO norm the risks related to H&S of employees are not considered enough important to prevent the QMS to reach his quality objectives. His feeling was reinforced by the two certification audits of BIT QMS; in neither case the subject of  H&S prevention was touched.
Only a note of par. 7.1.4 directly touches this subject:

H&S in ISO 9001:2015
There is also a generic requirement (7.1.5.1) that ” all resources should be maintained to ensure their continuing fitness for their purpose”.

The influence of EUI legislation to prevent PSR.

Fortunately for Paul, in the EUI area, the Council introduced the particularly important Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 : the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work.

This European Directive can be applied by each member State in a different way but the basic principles cannot be changed. In particular, it obliges each member State to establish an integrated intervention program; this program can be easily integrated in an ISO quality management system as it is based on the principle of the PDCA.

The European directive didn’t limit to supply a normative, mandatory, framework. It was also the base to build an European approach to H&S, including guides and tools with the support of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
Each member State could then build, on this base, additional guides and tool tailored to the the specific legal implementation of the directive (SPF for Belgium).
Paul founded very interesting two pillars of the Belgium law of 4 August 1996 (that received the European directive):

  • a dedicated section on the psychosocial risk;
  • prioritize the collective measures versus individual measures in taking preventive measures.

There is a concordance to identify the organization of work as one of the most important source of psychosocial risks (Fig 1).


cause of PSR

Fig 1 – The main sources of phychological risk

Kanban practice: Limit WIP.

Limit the Work in Progress (WIP) is the way Kanban makes a limit to chaos.
Let suppose that the service team decides that they can manage max. 5 “typical size” projects at the same time. This means that if they are working on 5 different projects, they will not accept to work on a new project despite the number of opportunities that sales has identified (or even contractually signed) or the amount of escalation that top management is exerting to introduce new projects.

Organizations that adopt Limit WIP agree on a pull system method: the team pulls new work when they have enough free resources to do it. The motto of this organizations is “stop starting, start finishing”.

A WIP limit was not introduced in the Kanban practice to increase the wellbeing of the single employee (even if the respect of the employees is a fundamental principle of the Lean approach, in which Kanban has been developed). This practice focuses on improving the performance of the whole organization, and not on the productivity of the single employee (or even the team), with an undeniable effect on the psychological (or physical) activity of each employee.
This does not mean to work less: means clearly identifies the limit in which the single contribution of the employee will not increase any more the value for the customer; about that limit, the employee can focus on other activity (like learning), that normally have even beneficial impact on his stress level.

Another natural consequence of limit WIP is to drastically reduce the amount of multitasking of every employee, a of powerful source of stress.

Kanban practice: Improve collaboratively.
This practice has a beneficial impact on the relationship at work, another important source of PSR.
Instead of finger-pointing, accusing, and humiliating the ones who create problems, a Kanban team values actions to make impediments visible. In order to give a feeling to his management of this Kanban practice, Paul donate to each of them a copy of the book Turn the shop Around.

Limit WIP and Improve Collaborative can help the organization to prevent (or at least control) the PSR. However, they must be introduced together with the other 4 Kaban practices in order to have an impact in your QMS:
1) Visualize work;
2) Manage flow (of work);
3) Make process policies explicit;
4) Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally.

With these 6 Kanban practices, it is possible to have a QMS that allows to reach the Company Quality target allowing in the same time each employee to work smarter (and not harder), as the good Deming said in early 80′.

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