We’re doing 5S… Isn’t that Lean?

We’re doing 5S… Isn’t that Lean?

Good news, bad news. The good news is that 5S (or 6S if you want to lump safety into the pot for convenience sake) is the traditional first step in many lean implementations. The bad news is that if you are doing it as a standalone without linkage to the main principles of lean, you may just be irritating your workforce for no good reason. Experience has shown that 5S is merely a tool in the overall process of implementing lean. But implementing without a thought to linkage with the other principles is one of the cardinal sins of lean implementation. There must be some design and planning that allow the process to flow.

A quick review will show us what 5S looks like on the surface.   5S is a process for creating and maintaining an organized, clean, safe and high performance workplace.  Most organizations view 5S as a logical place to start. The journey often starts as a result of a strategic analysis of how a
business is meeting the customer’s needs.  The four basic understandings are:

  • Our customer needs are constantly changing
    (technology, designs, applications, global forces, economic upheavals and so on)
  • Companies compete to meet these needs (unless your
    product or service is uniquely patented, someone else is probably out there
    trying to do it better)
  • To survive, our company must stay competitive
    (be assured that your competition has already had this conversation and may
    even be years ahead of you on a continuous improvement journey)
  • This means improving our products and services
    to lower our costs, increase our quality, speed development to delivery and
    innovation. None of these are possible if you are surrounded by waste that
    consumes your energy, time and resources.

The five “S”s (in the English language) are Sort, Set, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. These are five actionable steps that a workplace can achieve using a plan and the right level of support.  In most cases, the start of the implementation is planned around a “pilot project” that is managed using work center resources and some additional support from the maintenance and leadership groups.

The most successful programs I  have participated in are the ones that start with the end in mind. If you are going to all the trouble of mounting a major effort to change the landscape, what is your plan to sustain it over the distance? There is an old saying in business:  what gets measured gets done.  Part of the plan for any 5S project should list all of the steps along the way and what are some of the expected achievements. Have you really thought about that or are you just moving forward because your CEO read the latest trends in the business magazine on his last flight?

5S is a deceptively simple  process. Like any activity, hundreds of books and probably tens of thousands of articles can tell you a cookie cutter approach to putting it in place. Very few that I have read ever actually scratch the surface of all of the dynamics involved with actually doing an activity though. If people were machines, none of what I am about to say would be important. But at the heart of this, asking people to implement something they are not already doing involves “change”.

Change is a six letter word but it  might as well be a four letter word in the way it is most often perceived. Go into any workplace today and you will find a form of “accidental 5S”. The workers have already designed their work spaces to a certain extent in order to meet the existing goals. They will have placed the extra inventory they need in a conveniently non-visible storage location that escapes the casual glance of the hapless supervisor. Their tools will be squirreled away to prevent other workers from “borrowing” them in a pinch. There will be cast off pieces of
furniture left over from the last office redecoration brightly covered with various forms of duct tape and extra padding for those long shifts. Most
significantly you will see a clean path between the areas of travel (surrounded by ground in dirt that dates to the Stone Age).

Now here you come with a new process that asks them to destroy the very comfort level they have built over the years. I can tell you that although people often talk about the need for “change” not a single one of them at a visceral level wants to actually change. Since they are already making do in the existing climate why is there a need for any of these new changes?

I would suggest that until you are  ready to deal with the human element and you properly prepare them, your textbooks on Lean will serve you better as a door stop.

The most amazing thing about the misapplication of 5S is the idea that somehow the “clean and shine” are the most important parts.

There are actually two things that 5S should be doing for you. First, the process itself is a way to build individual and team discipline. The harder tools will come later and if you do not have a very disciplined team that can work its way through the smaller struggles presented by maintaining a 5S attitude, you will never succeed when the going gets really tough. Just as an example, standardized work across a shift or multiple shifts is one of the most mind numbingly difficult parts of any lean implementation. If you don’t believe me, do a simple test. Go out to any of your work stations now and ask to see a work instruction. Have a worker explain to you how they use it (or not). Then go to another worker and ask the
same question. Finally, put both workers together and ask them to explain which is better. Warning: Bring armor and a face shield.

Beyond building discipline, the second most important part of 5S is building a force of people who think with a problem solving mentality. Seeing everything in its place and highly visible creates a problem solving environment. How much waste is consumed each day as workers look for missing tools or equipment at the start of each shift? How many conflicts are avoided because the things needed to accomplish the work are
readily available? Workers who are angry are not very efficient problem solvers. The amount of energy consumed each day in petty feuds and disagreements is stunning. You will find it difficult to impossible to move forward as a business if all of your workers energy is consumed with looking backwards.

My final suggestion on 5S is that you should move forward with determination but not desperation. Since you are dealing with people and people are complicated, having a road map does not mean having a series of artificial deadlines. Your goal should always be to have a self sustaining program that builds the discipline and problems solving skills you will need for the harder parts of the journey.

If you are implementing 5S without an eye towards preparing for the other principles of lean (BIQ, JIT, CI, and Teamwork), you are wasting your time and energy.

The mantra for 5S is “A place for everything and everything in its place” Nothing could be truer for a submarine during its day to day operations. We are trained to fight in the dark if need be and battle any casualty with our eyesight limited. Each sailor learns the location of every valve, every key breaker, every tool, every lifesaving device and every hatch. When you are riding along at full speed in pursuit of a potential “hostile” there are no second guesses when it comes to operating the critical equipment. When there is a fire in the galley, there are no “do-over’s” if the flames reach the bulkhead and travel into the radio room.

If you truly want to be successful, you should imagine the same rules for your business. If you fail to implement, you will never be able to integrate. If you fail to integrate, your innovation will be stilted and in many cases non-existent. It is hard to prepare for the future if you are constantly reacting to the past. A good 5S program as part of a comprehensive plan will help you do all three with more efficiency.

Mr. Mac

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