What a Mess – 5S

It matters little how neatly you store things if you can’t get them when they are needed. A straight and orderly mess hidden behind another straight and orderly mess could just as well be a pit into which useful items are shoveled. The perception that it is not a mess is just an illusion. True organization must take into account accessibility and order. If it does not, do not waste your time. Push it into the pit. The pit at least accurately describes the mess for what it is and will not try to hide the problem.

The Lean “tool” of 5S addresses much of this. When most people think of 5S programs, they think of a bright, organized tool cabinet, where each tool has a special cut-out and only that tool will fit there. Or, they think of a board of clearly labeled tools at a machine. 5S is much more than neatly organized tools.

5S itself isn’t really a Lean tool at all. It’s an expression of the Lean principle of “just what is needed, just when it is needed” or JIT (Just In Time). The first step in realizing this principle is sorting out what you don’t need. (the first S is Sort – Seiri in Japanese). So, if you have 4 tools that are regularly when adjustmenting a machine, you don’t need a complete toolbox. If you only need one hex wrench, is there any reason to supply a complete set of hex wrenches?

As I mentioned 5S is an expression of a principle, or philosophy. So, notice how “Sort” removes tools, supplies, or parts you don’t need in the same way that batch reductions remove materials and WIP you don’t need, and inventory reductions remove (sort out) items that your customer doesn’t need – just what is needed, just when it is needed. Lean tools are all merely extrapolations of that simple principle, which in itself is an extrapolation of the principle of Respect. Respect the value of the work being done and many Lean principles, tools, and methods flow naturally into their context.

The 2nd S, (Set in Order – Seiton, in Japanese) organizes the items that are needed. Shadow boards for tools and supplies are often used for this. This is the most visible of the S’s and that is why most people equate just this one S with 5S. Remember that its only one out of five and so 80% of the work involved in a 5S program is not represented by these boards.

The 3rd S, (Sweep or Sanitize, Seiso in Japanese) expresses the importance of cleanliness. Very often when a 5S program is initiated, much attention will be given to a one-time cleanup of a work area. That is of course important, but again, its more important to understand the principle behind it than it is to simply clean up once. One of the really good pieces of advice that I give (and I don’t presume to offer advice very often) is that “cleanliness is 50% of maintenance.”  So, sweep the floor and you may find a hidden leak. Clean the engine on your car and you may find a worn hose or broken fitting. Clean off your porch and you may find a broken board or a nail sticking up. Cleaning uncovers small problems that are easy to fix. They can then be fixed easily before they turn into major issues. Further, dirt and debris capture moisture, which makes small problems worse. Dust tend to stick to small piles of dirt, making bigger piles. Dirt makes machinery work harder, increasing the risk of failure and decreasing efficient, smooth operation. Also, dirt looks bad and expresses your own level of pride and concern in your operation. So, Sweep, does not just mean sweep once. It means clean everything regularly…every tool….every work area…every day. You will need to provide the means (brushes, cleansers, brooms, vacuums…) to do this and the time to do it. Its not much of a task if done all the time.

The 4th S, (Standardize, Seikutsu in Japanese) expresses the need to make a standard for a work area. It should be organized, free of extra tools, and clean yes, but also, once those have been accomplished (the first 3 S’s), that current state of order needs to be documented (in words, in pictures, in videos, however) so that everyone knows what the work area is supposed to look like. Everyone should know what to expect when coming in to work and that it is expected it should be that way. The idea of a standard is dangerous, however. Many people take that idea and think “It needs to be this way, forever, since we worked so hard to fix it.” The standard should not really be considered a rigidly enforced standard of work. It should instead be considered a baseline for improvement. It can always be made better and should be modified and improved as new ideas arise and conditions change. “Without standards, there can be no improvement” was a favorite saying of Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno. Standards are made to be improved. 5S is a continuous improvement process.

The 5th S, (Sustain, Shitsuke in Japanese) expresses the continuous improvement mindset. While the word sustain seems to imply enforcement of the 4th S, it really means sustain the improvement or sustain the goal of perfection. So certainly, regular 5S audits, both formal and ad-hoc are necessary to ensure that work areas, tools and supplies are maintained and available as per the standard. It is also a component of the sustain function to identify areas where the standard is inadequate, where it is not being followed (ask why?), or where it no longer serves the work being done. Do not let the idea of “best practices” become the enemy of “a better way.” In fact, my advice (giving a fair amount of advice for a guy who doesn’t give advice, eh?) is not to use the term “best practices” at all. Instead, use Current State, Present Standard, or Improvement Standard. Improving the standard should always be the goal and there can be no improvement without changing it. As always with Lean, Seek Perfection.

5S, on its own, if applied company-wide, can be a transformative Lean principle (and not really a tool). Certainly it gives a set of defined activities which are a good start. More important is the philosophical mindset of 5S. Give some deep thought to the goals behind the methods before ‘implementing’ them. 5S is often thought of as merely “a place for everything and everything in its place.” This misses the point. Think of it instead as “a need for a particular thing and a time at which it is needed” Avoid the temptation to simply transform one ugly mess into a beautiful, color-coded, well organized one.


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