Some Thoughts on 5S

It’s always good to reflect on Lean tools and techniques and executing a project with a client recently caused me to have some moments of reflection on 5S.

I don’t think any Lean tool is as misunderstood as 5S. Often presented as a campaign or a program for organizing workplaces, I believe the real intention of 5S has been lost over the years.

On one level, 5S is about organizing – setting up work areas for the greatest efficiency, safety, and productivity.And this can sometimes be carried to absurdity, such as when people mindlessly go about creating labelled locations for everything and anything.

Yet, the real power of 5S is in systematizing and standardizing processes. The power of 5S becomes apparent when you consider that “process” includes inputs and outputs, as well as the 4M’s – Man (and Woman), Machine, Materials, and Method. If one’s definition of “process” is simply the physical infrastructure of the work area, then 5S is likely only to be viewed as a housekeeping tool.

Systematizing and standardizing processes means applying 5S thinking to process inputs and outputs. Consider how the 5S elements apply to process inputs and outputs:

  • How should material and informational inputs and outputs be sorted? Are we receiving from our upstream suppliers, and making for our downstream customers, what is really needed in terms of content, quality, and quantity?
  • How set-in-order are our inputs and outputs? Are our inputs and outputs suitable in format, sequence and timing?
  • Are our inputs and outputs shined? Do our inputs and outputs have complete and accurate content and are they usable first time and “fit for purpose”?
  • How standardized are our inputs and outputs? Are they consistent, traceable, and repeatable?

A process includes its upstream suppliers and downstream customers, and 5S thinking must apply to all elements of a process, not just to its physical infrastructure.

Similarly, 5S applies to the 4M’s. What people, machines, materials, and methods are really needed in the process (sort)? How should these resources be organized and used (set-in-order)? How can we ensure that these resources are free from imperfection, kept in good order, and ready to be used when needed (shine)? How do we normalize these resources to ensure that they execute work in the same way, every time (standardize)? And finally, what can we do to ensure that we maintain a systematized and standardized process over time (sustain)?

Too often I see 5S being just about cleaning and organizing. It is that, to be sure, but it goes much deeper – it is about how we structure and execute the elements of work itself so that we can add more value all across the value chain.

Thinking of 5S in this way takes us beyond the mere organization of a work area. Thought of this way, 5S can lead naturally to other Lean tools and techniques. The real power of 5S is what we make of it and how deeply we are prepared to think about it.

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