Adding Safety To the Quality Equation

Making the work environment safer also makes employees work smarter and be more productive
By Bob Doyle, Therma-Tru Corp.
October 15, 2003
FEATURE ARTICLE | Operations, Close-Ups

For Therma-Tru Corp., being a preferred brand of entry doors and producing high-quality, beautiful products doesn’t fully define success. Being a true leader also means being a preferred place of employment and delivering operational excellence in all of our facilities. One hallmark of operational excellence is a safe workplace, where smart manufacturing processes and proactive communication ensure that all associates enjoy the most productive, rewarding work environment.

One of the keys to improving safety in the workplace is creating an environment where there is open dialogue and true teamwork among all associates in the facility—from the drivers who deliver materials and pick up finished products to the line associates to the engineers and to the management team. This communication leads to trust and a trust-based culture is essential in making a workplace safer and more productive.

As our business has grown, we have faced the challenge of increasing the productivity and efficiency at our plants to meet growing demand. And, although the company already had an excellent safety record, we wanted to create a “best-in-class” safety program. So in 2000, Therma-Tru embarked on a major initiative to improve operational excellence in our manufacturing facilities in Butler, IN; Roland, OK; Fredericksburg, VA; Wilmington, NC; Phoenix; and Matamoros, Mexico. Key objectives of the initiative included:

  • Making the plants safer workplaces and reducing lost-time or restricted work accidents by 20 percent annually.
  • Freeing up floor space for finished products.
  • Increasing productivity in focused areas by 100 percent or more.
  • Implementing efficient capacity additions to production lines that could meet or exceed demand levels.
The company, which has been designing and manufacturing doors for 40 years, has invested a great deal of engineering time in developing its production equipment and refining its work-flow process and procedures. Still led by the family that founded it, the company has always had a strong commitment to the safety of its associates. Our approach to safety centers on four principles:
  • Safety is the responsibility of everyone in the company.
  • The management team is accountable for leading our safety effort.
  • Working safely is a condition of employment for all associates.
  • All injuries are preventable.
Beginning the Change
Therma-Tru turned to the “5S” philosophy, adding a sixth S—safety—into the equation. For those unfamiliar with 5S, it is a kaizen (continuous-improvement) discipline based on five Japanese words that begin with “S.” It is a business-improvement strategy that seeks to identify, reduce and eliminate defects from every product, process and transaction; to guide teams in outlining new processes for every step in the manufacturing process; as well as developing new training programs for associates. The 5S process includes:
  • Seiri, clearing up or sorting—Sort out what you do not need, only leave essentials.
  • Seiton, organizing storage—A place for everything and everything in its place.
  • Seiso, cleaning and shining—Keep the place clean and stuff will be easier to find.
  • Seketsu, standardizing—Everyone agrees on the “right” way to operate.
  • Shitsuke, training and discipline, sustainability—Hold yourselves to the changes that are implemented.

The 5S approach made us really evaluate every aspect of our manufacturing process. It’s all about delivering continuous improvement and eliminating waste. It isn’t easy. You have to look at everything through the eyes of the customer and eliminate everything that doesn’t add value. We were able to reduce travel distance between production lines, improve productivity, reduce overtime and avoid costs. More importantly, we were able to create a more collaborative work environment.

One of the key elements of the initiative was a renewed focus on the safety culture. Therma-Tru developed a cross-functional team to:

  • Review risks and engineer safer procedures.
  • Educate associates on smart workplace decisions and correct inefficient work practices.
  • Enforce the new guidelines with positive support and rewards.
  • Drive specific behaviors that support safe work practices.
  • Make the safe work practices and rewards part of the culture.

Many companies have an invisible culture in their facilities outside of the stated policies and procedures. It embodies what people really believe and how they act, regardless of what they are expected to do. Our goal was to eliminate this invisible culture and create a clear understanding of what every associate needed to do to contribute to a trust-based culture.

Research shows that low-trust cultures have more injuries than high-trust cultures. But a company can create a cycle of trust that continually reinforces and rewards positive behavior. It all begins when an associate has a positive thought about improving his or her job or performance. When this is met with a positive reaction from a team member, then a positive action is taken. From that, a positive opinion is formed by the associate and the positive action is noticed and rewarded by the team member.  This reinforces the positive opinion formed by the associate and encourages everyone to continue to bring forward more positive thoughts. Bottom line, it creates a safer workplace where associates trust that their input is valued and implemented. Ultimately, the associates become safety champions engaged in collective improvements.

Our company’s investment in safety is paying off. All six of our facilities have seen significant reductions in lost time and restricted work incidents during the past three years. Therma-Tru’s Roland, OK, facility has become the safety champion of the company. At the 2003 Oklahoma Governor’s Safety and Health Conference, it received the 2003 Governor’s Award for Safe Performance for its safety improvements. It also received the 2003 Safety Culture Award of Excellence from the Oklahoma Department of Labor’s Worker Safety Council, and the Pewter Stag Award from Hartford Insurance for exceeding 500,000 hours without a lost-time accident. Therma-Tru managers and associates were able to deliver an 85 percent improvement in restricted-work and lost-time injuries from 1999 to 2002.

We are using our experience at the Roland facility as a benchmark for safety programs around the country. We are now using key learnings from the Roland program with our safety teams, incentive programs, videos, pamphlets, presentations, meetings, handbooks and manuals to drive its companywide effort to constantly and consistently improve workplace safety.

We started with a very focused safety initiative and a strategic plan for accomplishing our goals. But we learned so much along the way from our associates, particularly in Roland, that we are continually reinventing the program to reflect their insights and experiences. It just proves that, by working as a team, we can achieve our goals faster and more efficiently.

As a company, we not only work to continue improving upon this record, we also work with many of our distributors, educating them on ways to improve productivity, efficiency and safety within their operations. We recommend that leaders who want to create a trust-based culture focused on safety consider the following:

  • Make the case for change. Communicate the benefits of proactive safety improvements. Show how systematically identifying and controlling risks before incidents occur improves everyone’s job.
  • Share your vision. Establish clear expectations for the safety culture and how you see everyone working together to create it.
  • Build trust. Listen. Observe. Respond positively. Repeat. Leaders should make at least one safety-related contact every day.
  • Develop capabilities. Create a cross-functional team that includes the input of a range of associates in a variety of positions. This ensures that you have good perspective on the challenges and solutions. Review all job procedures and job injury and illness reports. Review near misses. Brainstorm “what if?” concerns. Create solutions that address each concern.
  • Monitor progress. Get everyone involved in measuring success. Make it as important as meeting production or financial goals.
  • Recognize people. Let associates know how valuable they are in creating a safe workplace. 
Bob Doyle is senior vice president and general manager of the residential door systems business for Therma-Tru Corp., Maumee, OH. With more than 20 years in the building materials business, he has held leadership positions in sales, marketing and manufacturing. This article is based on a presentation he made at the Window & Door Manufacturers Association Technical Conference in May 2003. More information is available at