Have you ever walked into a garage and noticed something missing the moment you entered the door? It may not even be your garage; in fact, this may be the first time you have ever entered this particular garage. And yet, you are still able to instantly notice that something is not quite right.
For example, the visible silhouette of a hammer painted on the wall is an indication that a hammer is supposed to be there, but for some reason, it is not. This is good knowledge to have because when it comes time to need that hammer, someone will have to stop what they are doing to look for it, thus stopping production and wasting time. If this scenario sounds familiar, you’ve come across a form of visual management.
In this scenario, you now have the ability to prevent that down time before it happens. Visual management is a core tenet of Lean thinking, and a foundational principle of what is known as 5S.
The S’s in 5S stand for the Japanese words Seiri (Sort), Seiton (Set in Order), Seiso (Shine), Seiketsu (Standardize), and Shitsuke (Sustain). It is a practice that is not unique to Lean management principles and, like most aspects of Lean, it is simply common sense once you understand it. But as is usually the case, common sense is not always very common.
The purpose of this article is not to explain the history of 5S, how to do it, or its nuances. Instead, it will talk more about why someone would want to and where it fits into the bigger picture.
Transforming lean practices with 5S
Let’s begin the discussion with the question, “What role does 5S play in the overall scheme of things when it comes to continuous improvement and Lean transformations?”
It is a little difficult to put it in a box and define it as a single function because, depending on a company’s needs and current lean maturity level, 5S can serve various purposes.
Some companies use it as a starting point—a fresh, clean slate to get things going in the right direction. That is fine, provided you don’t stop there. It’s not unusual for companies to mistakenly believe that doing a 5s makes them “Lean.”
One thing to keep in mind when considering whether to perform a 5S is that Lean is not meant to be implemented ala carte. Performing a 5S with no regard to the overall system it is affecting, as well as the impact on flow and customer value, could potentially provide no measurable benefit at all and, worse yet, have a negative impact.
When is the right time to do a 5S?
The simple answer is when it solves the biggest problem you have. However, determining what the “biggest problem” is can be a subjective exercise. It could be the one with the best strategic alignment, greatest cost savings or improvement of morale.
This is for you to decide, but when the problem is related to the condition of a workspace and its impact on workflow and customer value, it is time to do a 5S.
Minimizing waste with 5S Lean
When done correctly, a 5S will have a positive impact on reducing and eliminating manifestations of all forms of the eight wastes of Lean:
- Transport is reduced by arranging materials in the workspace by frequency of use.
- Inventory is reduced by adding max, min and refill lines to storage bins
- Motion is reduced by configuring the workspace to optimize ergonomics and eliminate bending and reaching (which also improves what is sometimes referred to as the 6th S, Safety).
- Visual indicators such as shadow boards, labels, and color coding, along with standardized layouts, will reduce downtime.
- Overproduction can be controlled by allowing for only enough space for a certain number of units to be stored in between process steps.
- Posted work standards will address problems with overprocessing and defects.
- Establishing a simple, convenient feedback loop for employees to share information about innovations and improvements that have been implemented or improvement suggestions that are beyond their ability to carry out will leverage their knowledge and experience for the benefit of all.
Optimizing processes with 5S Lean principles
As indicated earlier, Lean is not designed to be implemented ala carte. Performing a 5S will have an immediate positive impact on the workers in the space where it was done, but if the entire system is not taken into consideration, there may be no improvement to its overall flow and throughput.
If that particular workspace is not your biggest problem, you may end up sub-optimizing the system and cause inventory to build up at a bottleneck downstream. And if the bottleneck is upstream of the 5S, employees will find themselves with downtime while waiting for the product to reach them.
The best way to avoid this is through the use of pull systems and value stream maps, which will be addressed in future articles. Here are some tips and tricks to consider when applying 5S lean in the workplace:
- Determine if this is the most important problem that needs to be solved at this time.
- Have clear messaging for the employees, get their buy-in, and explain how this will make their jobs easier.
- The process owner should lead the event with support from a skilled facilitator and the backing of upper management.
- Employees who work in the space being improved must be consulted on how it should be arranged, what is kept, and what is discarded.
- Improvements come primarily from the workers.
- Set production improvement targets around cost reductions, throughput, and morale.
- Have a plan to sustain the changes because if left alone, things will begin to shift back to where they were prior to the event.
- Celebrate success and communicate the benefits and lessons learned with other operating units.
- Pick a small space and practice getting good at it.
- Be sure to incorporate as many Lean principles as possible (customer value, systems approach, flow, pull, improve).
Lean initiatives do not have to be complicated. In fact, it has been my experience that companies tend to make them more difficult than they need to be.
We’ve all heard it said that perfect is the enemy of better. And if we approach things like 5S with the intent of improving the way things are done by leveraging the knowledge and experience of the front-line worker to the benefit of the customer, small improvements will add up over time to continuously move you one step closer to perfection, even if you never fully reach it.
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