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Mike Richman


Sustaining Quality Improvements: A Case Study

FAFCO keeps its 5S success moving forward

Published: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 - 13:33

Of all the tools in the lean toolkit, 5S is the one that has proven to be the most effective—and also the most elusive. It’s effective because the actions needed to sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain mirror the deeper, critically important philosophy of thinking about value, waste, and flow with a “big picture” mindset. Once an organization has adapted lean thinking and initiated 5S projects, improvement begins to accelerate in all operational phases.

However, lasting success with 5S can also be elusive because that last “S,” representing the sustainment of the effort, must constantly be nurtured. It has been said, by Quality Digest Daily contributor Mike Micklewright, among others, that the sustain step of 5S is extremely difficult; it is, in fact, probably the hardest step of all. Successful sustainment means the difference between continuous improvement and continual improvement. The former is preferable because it reflects a steady, ever-present attitude of finding ways to do things better. The latter implies a stuttering series of start-and-stop efforts, with lots of ongoing and unnecessary course corrections.

Beginning a 5S journey

FAFCO Inc., a leading manufacturer of solar energy systems, is all about continuous improvement, and this is a company that puts its words into actions. In the spring of 2014, FAFCO and our sister company, 360 Performance Circle, together with Micklewright, joined forces in a 5S project targeting the maintenance department in FAFCO’s headquarters in Chico, California. During the course of two intensive days, Micklewright helped FAFCO team members completely revamp the department—asking questions, setting up visual work cells, restructuring processes, red-tagging extraneous or obsolete equipment, and so on. The “before” and “after” photos of the maintenance department’s work area seen here are striking.

FAFCO facility before the 5S project

5S has been a tool used by FAFCO for years, from very early on in its lean journey going back more than a decade. However, not all of those projects were able to sustain the momentum as 5S dictates.

“Before we began this process, there were some ‘here we go again’ feelings in the department,” says Eddy Hernandez, FAFCO’s continuous improvement coordinator, referring to the feeling among maintenance department team members that 5S would just be another passing improvement effort. “Kevin Brazzel, our maintenance leader, was enthusiastic from the beginning, though, and soon enough everyone else in the department really owned it.”

FAFCO facility after the 5S project

They weren’t the only ones demonstrating ownership of this important project and its connection to the broader imperative of enterprisewide excellence at FAFCO. This is a remarkably flat company in which even the highest managers stay very close to the happenings on the production floor. The management team, led by chairman Freeman Ford and president Robert Leckinger, set the strategic priorities for the company, and one of these four goals is that of continuous improvement. Vice president of operations Terra Ayers is responsible for implementing these plans throughout the company, and she worked closely with Hernandez to select the maintenance department as the pilot for FAFCO’s 5S effort. In turn, Hernandez worked with Brazzel to implement the 5S kickoff effort, and Brazzel worked with his team to execute the changes.

In sustaining the effort, this entire cast of characters play important roles. Brazzel reports to Hernandez on the day-to-day happenings in the department, including evolving procedures that necessitate changes to the standard work defined during the kickoff event. In terms of continuous improvement, Hernandez performs regular audits of the maintenance department (as well as all other departments within the company) and reports to Ayers, who keeps top management updated on the process. Again, this is an effort in which everyone “owns” the success of the program on a daily basis.

The visual identification of problem areas, which naturally leads to identifying actions to be taken, is an important part of sustaining 5S in a lean organization such as FAFCO. Hernandez has led a significant effort to create visual benchmarks throughout the company. For instance, shadowboards are employed extensively to track the use of tools and equipment. A 5S photo-auditing system has also been developed; Hernandez takes pictures of the current status and processes in various departments, and uses these as part of his regular reports to Ayers, showing what is going well and what still needs improvement. The company calls attention to successes in its internal newsletter, CI Times. This very visual document is highly anticipated by everyone on the production team when it comes out each quarter.

To blitz or not to blitz

Contrary to common belief, the kaizen “blitz” was not initially part of lean as it was originally set forth in the Toyota Production System. The Japanese term kaizen, which is often used somewhat interchangeably with lean, simply means, “change for the better.” Kaizen as practiced at Toyota was and is a methodical approach, combining incremental improvements in understanding with breakthrough leaps in quality. Quite often, the two exist side by side in a lean operation.

The kaizen blitz was essentially a U.S. invention, a way to kick off, with much fanfare, the series of major and cascading changes often necessitated by a lean transformation. The excitement and intensity of a day-long kaizen event helps to supercharge the effort, and those involved are often swept up in the energy of the event, which brings forth their best ideas for improvement. The highs of the blitz, however, can sometimes lead (indirectly, at least) to the difficulty with sustainment because those involved can feel that keeping the work going is less exciting than starting it. This must be guarded against if sustainment is going to succeed.

Still, Hernandez and his team see greater benefits with a properly performed, rapidly implemented blitz. “The ‘blitz’ approach works much better than the non-blitz approach in terms of kick-starting the initiative,” says Hernandez. “It takes longer without the blitz, but, for us, it seems to work better than the slower rollout. When we do it this way, it seems to stick better. It takes a lot of people, and a lot of effort, but it’s worth it.”

Overcoming obstacles

“At first, audits were a problem, but it was just a training issue,” says Hernandez. Once maintenance staff were properly trained on the purpose and reasoning for these necessary actions, performance improved across the board.

A more persistent problem came from outside the department. “A big issue is people coming into the department from other areas of the company and taking stuff that they may need, and then not returning it,” says Hernandez. There is some irony to this issue, for once the maintenance department had undergone its 5S kickoff, it had some of the most easily located tools in the production floor.

As a solution, Hernandez worked directly with process specialist Melody Hatler to identify who was borrowing tools from the maintenance department. The solution turned out to be simple: What made the maintenance department tools so easy to find was the use of shadowboards, and spreading this use across the production floor reduced the need for others to pirate equipment that doesn’t belong to them. Others departments can now find and return their own equipment just as easily.

Finding ways to solve problems like these is the key to sustaining a successfully launched 5S program. Any number of issues, small and large, can cause 5S to go off the rails, but when managers are tuned into the issues and address them quickly and effectively, the system can continue to flourish and add value.

New challenges and new standards

The hallmark of any successful 5S implementation is that it grows and evolves over the course of time. Such is the case at FAFCO, where the success enjoyed by past 5S events, most recently the one in the maintenance department, quickly spread to other areas of the company.

“We’re in the middle of applying a lot of the lessons learned from maintenance to our receiving department right now,” says Hernandez. “We haven’t rolled it out as quickly, but we’ve made a lot of positive strides in terms of visuality and organization.”

New companywide standards were developed as a direct result of FAFCO’s 5S initiative. Using the procedures and actions established during those two intense days, Hernandez established a 5S training program that can be applied anywhere in the company. He uses tools such as process maps, standard operating procedures, and best practices to harmonize actions. The streaming video lean training series created by Micklewright and 360 Performance Circle (the 5S sessions shot were at FAFCO) have been used for educational and training purposes within FAFCO as well.

Workers are strongly encouraged to take note of inefficiencies and make suggestions, and these are incorporated into updated procedures to ensure that continuous improvement remains a continuous focus. Reports showing the status of the organization’s quality initiatives are available to everyone in the company through the FAFCO intranet, which is moving to a Sharepoint system in the near future.

Hernandez, Ayers, and the rest of the FAFCO team are also actively involved with a local initiative called North Valley Lean, a group that we here at Quality Digest have had our eye on for several years. The group, which is made up of several Northern California manufacturers, including Lares Research, Roplast Industries, and Lundberg Family Farms, among others, meets regularly to exchange information and best practices. FAFCO has kept the group updated on its continuous 5S journey, sharing documents and lessons learned.

The road ahead

FAFCO is a company that takes self-assessment seriously, so when Hernandez says he would give their 5S sustainment “an 8 or 9” on a scale of 1–10, you have to be impressed.

“We’ve done 5S before, but this was a major event for us,” says Hernandez, summing up the maintenance department initiative. “The lessons learned spread to other areas of the company, such as receiving. Tools like value-stream maps and shadowboards have been huge for us.”

Of course, tools are only as good as the culture and principles that a given organization applies to its efforts for continuous improvement and performance excellence. A lean approach to business must be sustained; otherwise, teams will find themselves doing a 5S blitz time and time again in the same functional areas of the company. That’s not the purpose of lean, or 5S—that’s continual improvement, not continuous improvement. This difference is subtle but critical when a company seeks a steady stream of improvement, rather than stop-and-start, “flavor of the day” quality programs that so many seem to chase.

Staying on track and sustaining the spirit of continuous improvement is always the hardest part of any 5S effort, and to date, more than a year down the road, FAFCO is clearly sustaining and even expanding its efforts. The teamwork exhibited by all areas of the company, in production departments as well as the executive suite, is a notable reason for the success, as is the standing directive for continuous improvement set by the company’s top leadership. You can feel this commitment when you walk in the door of the place; everyone is attentive, questioning, dedicated. It’s a good vibe.

The thing about sustainment and continuous improvement are that they never come to an end. Nor does anyone at FAFCO intend them to. This is a company intent on improving not over the course of months, or even a year or two. Fafco is in it for the long haul, to better serve customers and find better ways to manufacture, now and forever. It’s a quality that is sure to continue to serve the company well as it sustains its lean efforts into the future.

This video is the preview of the five-part 5S streaming-video training series starring Mike Micklewright and available on the website of Quality Digest's training division, 360 Performance Circle.


About The Author

Mike Richman’s picture

Mike Richman


5S Success

Good article and it shows how important the enviroment is to managing quality, but, in conjunction with this, I think,  the continious improvement philosophy is really the key ingredient and it takes leadership and committment to forge ahead. Anytime you loose sight of the customer, you're bound to fail in the long term and if you don't nuture relationships with suppliers and customers, no matter how nice things look, the business will fail.