Recovering the Reasons for 5S

5S has become an (almost) unchallenged starting point for converting to lean production. Although the basics are quite simple, it is often a difficult and challenging process.

After the initial push to sort stuff out and organize what remains, sustaining  often usually almost always becomes an issue.

Again, because of early legacy, the most common response is what I call the 5×5 audit. This is a 5×5 grid, assigning 5 points across each of the “S” categories. It carries an assumption that managers will strive for a high audit score, and thus, work to sustain and even improve the level of organization.

Just today I overheard a manager trying to make the case that an audit score in his area ought to be higher. It was obvious that the objective, at least in the mind of the manager, was the audit score rather than solving problems.

The target condition had become abstract, and 5S had become a “program” with no evident or obvious purpose other than the general goodness that we talk about upon its introduction.

If the audit score is not the most important thing, then why do we emphasize it so much? What is our fascination with assigning points to results vs. looking at the actual results we are striving to achieve?

To digress a bit, many will say at this point that this is an example of too much emphasis on audits. And I agree. But this is more common than not, so I think of this as an instance of a general problem rather than a one-off exception.

Our target condition is a stable process with reduced, more consistent cycle times as less time is spent hunting for things. Though we may see a correlation between 5S audit scores and stability, it is all to easy to focus on the score and forget the reason.

Shop floor people tend to be intelligent and pragmatic types. They do not deal in a world of abstraction. While the correlation might make sense to a manager used to dealing in an abstract world of measurements and financials, that is often not the case where the work is actually done.

The challenge is: How do we make this pragmatic so it makes sense to pragmatic people?

Let’s start by returning the focus to pragmatic problems. Instead of citing general stories where people waste time looking for things so we can present a general solution of 5S, let’s keep the focus on specifics.

What if (as a purely untried hypothetical), we asked a team member to put a simple tick mark //// on a white board when he has to stop and hunt for something, or even dig through a pile to get something he knows is in there? If you multiply that simple exercise times all of the people in the work area, add up the tick marks every day, and then track the trend, you may just get more valuable information than you would with the 5×5 audit done once a month.

What if we actually track stability and cycle times. Isn’t this avoiding these wastes the case we make for 5S in the first place?  So perhaps we should track actual results to see if out understanding is correct, or if it has gaps (which it does, always).

What if we taught area leaders to see instability, off-task motions, and to see those things as problems. Let them understand what workplace dis-organization causes.

How about tracking individual problems solved rather than a general class of blanket countermeasure?

How many sources of work instability did we address today? I’d like to see what you learned in the process. What sources of instability did you uncover as you fixed those? What is your plan to deal with them? Great!

No problems today? OK – let’s watch and see if we missed anything. OH! What happened there? Why did we miss that before? Could we have spotted that problem sooner? What do we need to change so we can see it, and fix it, before it is an issue with the work?

These are all questions that naturally follow a thorough understanding of what 5S actually means.

But we have had 5S freeze dried and vacuum packed for easy distribution and consumption. At some point along the way, we seem to have forgotten its organic state.

5 thoughts on “Recovering the Reasons for 5S

  1. Mark – great post! The audit issue reminds me of Deming’s concerns about rewards and incentives leading to counterproductive behavior. High audit scores are *not* the goal of 5S.

  2. good write up.

    We saw this happen when we first began to launch. The first step to everything became “lets 5s that area!” and we’d spend a few days going through the process. Make it pretty, eat some pizza, hand out a polo shirt, and smile at each other.

    Then we’d realize that we maybe should have done a couple things differently, and then because it was a blitz people start letting it backslide because they didnt really get the value out of it like they could have.

    Then we actually tried something similar to your hypothetical. We 5S’d as we went. We showed people how to see minor interruptions and loss and then when we worked with them to solve the issue, we almost always had some 5S activity specific to that issues resolution.

    After you do this for 15 stations on a line…it starts being pretty obvious that its taken place. You dont get the big BANG from a 5 day event…BUT…you’ve solved some real issues and made it easier to see new issues in a natural manner. Youve walked through the learning process and prepared people to be sensitive to real problems that they would have lived with before.

    Then one day a VP or Director visists that hadnt been there for a month or two and they are like WHOA?!

    At least where i was it worked very well for us.

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