Workstation Design & Organization

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When designing a workstation – whether for a hospital, a kitchen, an assembly line, a construction site, an office, or anywhere else – the main concerns should be safety, flexibility, consistency, and flow. Working in an unsafe space has obvious downsides so we’ll only cover it briefly. A couple things to keep in mind when thinking about safety are personal protective equipment (PPE) for individuals, secure storage, and clean surroundings. Specifically, gloves, glasses, masks, helmets, earmuffs, harnesses or other necessary supplies for people working in environments with potential for danger or in a job where they will be doing repetitive work. Cumulative stress disorders (injury from repetition) are avoidable with proper PPE. Heavy equipment, chemicals, anything toxic or flammable and other noxious material needs to be kept in a secure space. Harm from unsecured material is an avoidable source of workplace injuries. Clean surroundings are also important for minimizing injury. If something harmful (slippery floors, broken glass, spilled coffee, etc) is hidden from view, the probability of injury goes up.

Investing in flexible work spaces is a great approach to designing a workstation as well. Regardless of the job, it should be designed to fit the person doing it, not the other way around. Someone that is 5’2” should have the same capability (as close as possible, anyways) as someone that is 6’5.” Height adjustable desks, shelves that slide in and out, accessible step ladders when necessary, mechanical assistance, and other customizable elements (adjustable lighting, monitors, seats, etc.) will allow for different people to do well in a job.

When it comes to consistency, workstations should be as similar as possible from one to the next. If an employee needs to fill in for someone, managers need to do inspections, or standards are to be set at all, there needs to be sameness; a level playing field by which to make comparisons. The simplest yet most effective way to implement consistency is with 5S:

  1. Sort: Remove clutter and separate the frequently needed from infrequently needed items in a work space. Keep items in easily accessible paces.
  2. Set in order (or straighten): A place for everything, and everything in its place. Think shadow diagrams to highlight where something is supposed to go. Additionally, organize items in the order they will be used (when possible).
  3. Shine: Keeping the work space clean, as a daily activity.
  4. Standardize: Establish a system to keep the above 3S’s consistent. Keep consistency between workstations.
  5. Sustain: Periodic reviews to ensure the above 4S’s are being followed.

5S is another tool brought to us by the Japanese thinkers behind the Toyota Production System. Their organizational methodology helped Toyota reduce set up and tool change over time which increased the flexibility of their production lines, which led to a better ability to meet customer demand at speed. 5S is very much a cycle, though, as shown in image 1 below. It requires a dedicated effort to remain organized for it to hold value. An annual spring cleaning will not be sufficient for organization based productivity gains.

Designing flow into a system is much easier said than done. Variations in customer demand, sporadic order timing, and ambiguous instruction all contribute to a turbulent work routine. Finding ways to limit inconsistency with design, then, is no easy feat. Some other tools noted on the OpsCombinator site (spaghetti diagrams, VSMs, waste elimination) are big picture methods for streamlining an operation. However, at the micro level, using a U-shaped design for workstations is advantageous. By keeping the largest number of tools within an arm’s reach, a U-shaped workstation maximizes space utilization and minimizes the time it takes to find the right tool. A person standing in the open side of the U (Or n for some of you) can readily reach and grasp the greatest number of tools, which increases the variety of work that can be done in one space. This is one area where reducing the number of motions required can have a big impact.

Image 1: 5S as a continuous Cycle

For more on this, check out “The Pocket Guide To Making Stuff Better”

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