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The Secret for Sustaining 5S

It’s not what you do, but where you start

Published: Monday, February 4, 2013 - 11:33

Do you want to know a secret? It’s one that lean experts often overlook because nobody told them about it. However, before revealing it, we need to answer a couple of questions first.

• What is 5S?
• Why is 5S important to implement?
• Why do so many U.S. companies fail in 5S implementation?

5S is a technique used to organize a workplace by making it more visual, safer, and free of clutter. The 5S concept began in Japan as seiri, seiso, seitonseiketsu, and shitsuke, terms that closely correlate to sort, shine, set in order, standardize, and systematize (or sustain). In a nutshell, 5S involves cleaning up any work area and getting it organized. It sounds so simple. It seems an obvious improvement. Who could argue the logic of an orderly workplace? So many times, U.S. companies initiate a 5S program and engage in a massive clean-up effort, yet the disorganization returns a few months later. What a waste.

A typical 5S effort that falls on its face follows this pattern: Management decides that the plant is a mess and starts an initiative to organize workstations. The bosses appoint a project leader, someone enthused about the process. The project begins with one pilot area, and employees are asked to sort out the tools and supplies necessary for their daily work. Next they are asked to clean their work space, remove clutter, and make it shine. Then the workers are asked to determine a logical arrangement for the tools and supplies in the workspace and set them in that order.

At this point, the plant workers usually stop to celebrate a little because they can see how their efforts have made such a difference. Frequently they skip the process of standardize and systematize. This is where atrophy begins to set in. Once one area is completed, the project leader moves on to another area and repeats the clean-up cycle. With all the noticeable improvement, plus the feeling of a better workplace, the organization effort gains momentum, and the 5S initiative begins to look like a picture of success.

By the end of the 5S implementation, the project leader will feel pretty good, as will the senior managers who will ask everyone to “keep it this way.” It obviously is better and safer; why wouldn’t anyone want to sustain the gains? Then time passes, and the gains are lost. The shop-floor employees asks themselves:
• Why did our state of order regress?
• Why did we make the effort in the first place? Certainly a clean shop makes people feel better.
• But is that why management wants 5S?

Three secrets of success

Here is the first secret: 5S increases profits because it exposes waste. The companies that succeed are the most efficient in production, and they are the fastest to see and solve problems. When a strong 5S program is in place, it is easy for leaders to walk around and see if people are working according to the plan and using best practices or not. When everything is in its place, a leader knows employees have exactly what they need and the company now has a baseline to start additional continuous improvement projects. Profit is the trigger for management, and when properly implemented, 5S exposes waste, which then can be eliminated to increase profitability.

This seems so obvious, but why does the effort atrophy? When the 5S technique arrived in the United States, its proponents didn’t take into consideration that there is a significant cultural difference between Japanese and U.S. workers. In Japan, conformity is something to be treasured. By contrast, we Americans “do our own thing,” and conformity is not cherished. To the Japanese, excess is unnatural. They live in limited space, and it seems normal to keep just what they want and need because they don't have room for excess. Americans by contrast are used to the wide-open spaces, which has fostered a culture of individualism and excess. Some people have so much stuff that they rent storage facilities just to keep it all. Because of our culture, it’s natural for U.S. workers to drift back to a work environment characterized by sprawl and disorder.

And therein lies the second secret: U.S. workers lack a self-imposed system of review, i.e.,  the fifth S, systematize. Because conformity runs counter to our culture, we must continuously reinforce the value of cleanliness and order—in order to maximize profit. One of the most effective ways to do this is by using a scorecard. Although we don’t really like to conform, we do enjoy a little friendly competition. Companies can appeal to that basic motivation to achieve a systematic reinforcement of 5S.

Now for the third secret: U.S. companies start a 5S process at the wrong point. Our workers need to know the standards, and then they must be measured against each other. For 5S to work in America, management must first define the standard—call it the “cleanliness spec.” This is best done with a combination of words and pictures. People on the shop floor need to know what is expected. When they do, the 5S process has a much better chance of succeeding.

So start at the fourth S by defining your standard, then move to the fifth S and systematize. Do these two steps before you tackle the first S, sort. You’ll be surprised at how well it works.


Case study: Standard Grinding and Manufacturing

Standard Grinding and Manufacturing (SGM) is a CNC machining company based in Skokie, Illinois, that produces complicated precision components for the aerospace, hydraulic, and medical equipment industries. SGM’s shipping area was a constant hub of activity with hundreds of loads coming and going regularly. With limited space, shipments and documents were often misplaced. You've seen it before: hard-working people, stepping over each other and losing time playing hide and seek for a box. SGM had attempted 5S in the past, but things always drifted back to a state of mild disorder. The main problem was all the clutter in the shipping area. The solution was figuring out how to sustain organization at this work center.

One of SGM’s major customers is Honeywell Aerospace, which deploys supplier development engineers (SDE) to work with its suppliers on continuous improvement projects, especially lean Six Sigma. During one of his visits to SGM, Curt Oswald, a Honeywell SDE, was discussing the shipping area orderliness with Don Reynolds, an SGM quality engineer. Since previous 5S projects had not taken hold there, the two decided to launch another effort but this time switch the 5S sequence and begin with standardize and systematize.

When they proposed the concept to SGM’s general manager, Howard Natal, the discussion focused on cost. “Every time we tried this in the past, it always felt like we were just spending money,” said Natal. “I didn't want to throw money out the window again for a temporary boost in housekeeping. I wanted something that would stick.” Oswald and Reynolds convinced Natal that their idea was different and could achieve the permanence he was seeking.

The weight-counting workstation before 5S shows a lack of  workflow and priority.

Oswald and Reynolds started by creating a layout of the shipping area and went around the department asking for everyone’s input. The process had a snowball effect; one idea followed another, and they started to build team excitement so that everyone wanted to get the project rolling. But before the 5S project began, they created a measurement system, including a scorecard, internal audit team, and a weekly review schedule. Because the project started with the fourth S, standardize, by creating the layout, and then moved to the fifth S, a measurement system, team members knew what their goal was and how they would define success.

SGM also created a bilingual 5S mission statement and posted it prominently in the shipping area. “The 5S mission statement set the stage for the culture change at SGM,” said Reynolds. “Everyone needed to be involved. Having a bilingual statement signals that no one is excluded. Ownership of a lean 5S project gives the workers pride and a sense of achievement. They want to sustain what they’ve accomplished.”

When the sort, shine, and set in order activities got started, everything flowed naturally. Decisions were easy. “If we needed something, we had a designated place for it,” said Reynolds. “If it didn’t have a place, the item became a target for disposal. The sort and shine steps happened so naturally, almost automatically, when we got to them. Safety was a natural byproduct, too.” The 5S steps of standardize and systematize broke the packrat syndrome, and SGM started disposing of things that hadn’t been used for years.

The weight-counting workstation after 5S. Workflow is improved. Separate staging tables prioritize what’s sent for processing and what’s completed. Everything has its place and is labeled.

Work in the shipping area is much easier now. The clutter is gone, and workers can handle the peak congestion periods with relative ease. Because the shop-floor workers created the system, were involved in defining the standard, and developed a process where they measured their own achievements, sustaining the results is possible. “This approach to 5S implementation greatly reduced the fear of change and the unknown,” said Oswald. “Teamwork and a winning attitude were the end results. SGM did a great job.” The best part is workers now compete with each other and try to set new records for orderliness and simplicity.

Now Oswald, Reynolds, and their team at SGM have a new problem. Which area to pick next? Hmm, how about the tooling area?


About The Authors

Curt Oswald’s picture

Curt Oswald

 Curt Oswald is a senior supplier development engineer at Honeywell Aerospace in Chicago and has been a lean Six Sigma consultant, trainer, and project manager.

Donald L. Reynolds’s picture

Donald L. Reynolds

Donald L. Reynolds is the senior quality engineer of Standard Grinding and Manufacturing Co. in Skokie, Illinois.

John J. Casey’s picture

John J. Casey

John J. Casey is the senior director of supplier performance at Honeywell Aerospace and is a past chairman of the American Society for Quality (ASQ) Automotive Division. Casey is the author of Strategic Error Proofing: Achieving Success Every Time with Smarter FMEAs (Productivity Press, 2008).



my 5S paradygm was broken !

excellent article--- in my 20 years of experience i had followed the same methodology  one after time -- star with doing things - activities instead of planning first ( which could relate with PDCA cycle) and we continue having same results -- sometime we had a cleaner - organized area but really we don't have a clue in where we are and where we going to,,,,  I love  your new way to see the things and I will aply it inmediately-- I will share it to my colleges and I have no doubt we will manage it uch better- have a better results... thanks for sharing  it ...