How does waiting in Permit-to-Work impact the plant’s safety?

And how to reduce waiting time to achieve Operational Safety Excellence?


Imagine this: you arrive in an unknown city in the middle of the night. You are exhausted after a long flight through a few time zones, and you need to get up early tomorrow for a long, busy day. You stand across from your hotel, one hand’s distance from you. But you need to cross the road, and the light is red. It is very late, and there is no single car around. What would you do?

Realizing that you are from the safety industry, you will probably say, “I’ll wait until the light is green and then cross.” But being fully honest with yourself, after such a hard day, do you really have encouragement to wait more?

This article will overview the impact of waiting time in the permit-to-work process from the people’s perspective. How does it impact people, why should shopfloor people be a part of the reducing waiting project, and how to empower them to do this?

Is waiting always bad?

Waiting in manufacturing is one of the seven wastes introduced by Taiichi Ohno, commonly used in modern Lean. Waiting in safety is a brutal reality, where performing a 5-minute job takes a few hours of safety preparations and is considered a regular practice.

We all know that waiting consumes a non-renewable resource, an important one: Time. But we often forget that waiting also consumes people’s willpower, just as limited as time.

Tiredness, hurry, overburdening, keeping deadlines, following compliance… By the end of the shift, these have already eaten quite a large portion of the average person working in manufacturing. So now also waiting. How tempting is it to violate rules when no one is watching? 

This mindset creates risky behaviors, frustration, complacency, or indifference, which can kill any team spirit and willingness to improve and innovate.

Such a huge impact on people reducing waiting time becomes emotional and thus cannot be resolved by simply directions from above.

Remember to mind human nature!

From the people’s well-being perspective, waiting is not always bad. Sometimes (especially during tiredness or stress), brief periods of inactivity act as microbreaks. This creates an internal dilemma for some people. On the one hand, they recognize that there is something inherently wrong with getting paid to stand around. On the other hand, they may work exceptionally hard between the waiting periods and need a quick breather. 

For example, waiting in line may give an individual a minute to chat with coworkers. Resolve that problem, and the social interaction goes away, making the job seem less satisfying for some.

What types of waiting in Permit-to-Work exist?

Waiting can be noticeable as when a person waits for all necessary approvals before starting a job preparation and performance. You might see a waiting queue by your permitting desk every morning or a contractor drinking coffee waiting for isolation. 

It can also be pretty subtle, as when a slow computer flashes the “spinner” while loading an enormously heavy Exclel sheet with checkboxes.

In Permit-to-Work, it is also often entirely hidden, as waiting time is often a component of cycle time. When one step is taken ONLY after the previous one is completed, those could be done in parallel. Initiating a LoTo plan for an isolation job together with initiating a permit could be an example. In a paper-based permit-to-work universe, these steps go after one another. 

Observing and capturing these cases could push forward the understanding of how much you really wait.

Some waiting time is expected, and some is not. If a maintenance person is required to wait for the machinery to cool down before being isolated, it is an expected waiting. If a maintenance person sometimes has to wait for a delayed part of isolation materials to arrive, that is unplanned waiting. Obviously, it is easy to manage (plan, schedule, analyze, etc.) the expected waiting. 

It is essential to observe your processes at the site (“Gemba”) to understand the types of waiting present in your Permit-to-Work to set up goals and build a relevant strategy for removing it. 

Why waiting occurs?

Waiting occurs for a variety of reasons. As we speak about the Permit-to-Work process, as a pillar of LSR, people often wait for signatures or authorizations, safety items, document delivery, or someone else to complete isolation tasks. You name it.

If you look from the process perspective, the reasons could also be quite variable:

  • Poor preparation
  • Poor prioritization
  • Unclear goals
  • Defects (re-dos, errors to be fixed, incomplete measures, etc.)
  • Unclear steps
  • Lack of education

But if you look from a larger scale, all the reasons for waiting time could be grouped in:

  1. Poor process design
  2. People are not engaged
  3. Lack of tools

We have overviewed these three aspects in the other article Three Root Problems of Permit-to-work Process.

What waiting costs you?

Coming back to the hotel story from the beginning. Wait time is not only costly for the labor time that is paid for and not utilized. 

  1. Waiting costs new risks, as it is harder for people to stay compliant after waiting too long.
  2. Waiting costs opportunities, as every idle minute means no task is being performed, and no improvement idea is introduced.

Thus waiting becomes a hurdle on the way toward Operational Safety Excellence, with zero incidents and balanced costs.

Wondering how much Waiting time costs you every year? Click here to calculate

How to approach reducing waiting time?

The strategy you choose will depend on how you classify waiting time from the impact it has.

VA vs. NVA

It is vital to distinguish value-adding from non-value-adding time.

In our article for EHSToday, we have brought up the example of rebalancing waiting time towards adding more value. Briefly, the example shows that improvements lead to a minimum decrease in overall time consumed but increased time spent on preparations.

From the safety perspective, getting more time to think through necessary safety measures can increase safety and thus is value-adding. Read more here: When Lean Meets Safety, Sjoerd Nanninga for EHSToday

Normal vs. abnormal

Leave extra time within the process to handle the fluctuation while looking at the speeding up process steps. This means that the work is still finished on time when there is a problem. But when things go well, there is a lot of standing around.

This is very well explained  in the article about Waiting time on “Instead, take out the buffers from individual work areas. Rebalance the line at the lower cycles, and free up a person to act as a floater to go where the problems are. The benefit is that the time is consolidated in a way that it can be used. The floater can support the line but also work on projects without the fragmentation that an operator would have if trying to work on something for a few minutes each cycle.”

It is critical not to focus on just eliminating waiting time but on the general goal of improving the process.

Remember, you work with people!

Wait time occurs whenever a person is inactive while he or she could be doing productive work. Reducing wait time can have a negative emotional effect on team members. This is especially true if they work quickly when they are not waiting.

Do not focus specifically on reducing wait time. Instead, take a holistic approach to waste. Look for all the wastes that affect a process and create a new operation that minimizes all the different forms of waste.

How to reduce waiting in Permit-to-Work?

People on the shopfloor are those who experience waiting for the most. They stand in morning queues, walk back and forth for approvals, wait until the paper is printed, etc. But it is also they who see things happening wrong and can hugely impact them. 

At the same time, reducing wait time is a challenge for an individual. 

Automating processes requires management buy-in, support, and direction. Coordination is equally challenging as most people have some flexibility in their own jobs but may not have an impact on how others operate. And it is even more challenging to manage abnormal signals, especially when a job requires narrow expertise from a third party, which is unavailable at the plant and needs to be arranged. 

Thus, encouraging and engaging people and supporting and educating them in the removing waiting time journey is crucial.

For this reason leaders, instead of managing waiting time in permit-to-work on their own by introducing new policies and tools, it is more vital to help people to synchronize the teamwork better and teach them to handle intermittent cases.

This wait time reduction strategy does require three main things:

  1. Set up measurements: measure, set up KPI goals, re-measure and constantly monitor data.
  2. Improve the process: observe, overview, explore best practices, eliminate other waste types, standardize, design new flows, and implement.
  3. Create ownership: talk to people, engage, and co-design processes together.

Disclaimer: remember to give people the right tools!

Digital Permit-to-Work software helps to save an enormous amount of time by automating actions, running parallel streams, empowering people using templates, and running processes smoothly without delays.

Moreover, digital Permit-to-Work software is also an intelligent library of lessons learned both for storing internal and external knowledge, experience, and best practices. 


Removing waiting time is straightforward if you work with machinery. But if you work with people, it is a delicate, emotional process, where taking away waiting without other changes makes people’s jobs harder.

When working together on eliminating waiting, make sure that you focus on taking away frustrations and hurdles for better flow instead of just forcing people to rush. 

There are three core things you can do to eliminate waiting time: measure, observe and engage people. But don’t forget to give people the right digital tools to make the goal of Operational Safety Excellence achievable. 

Read more about Unite-Permit to Work here.