Mom Was Right!


Is 5S just a fancy cleanup?

Mom was right

  • Clean your room before you go out
  • Put things away when you’re done with them
  • Wash up and brush your teeth before going to bed

These simple truths are indisputable…

Some years back I was working with a company that manufactured diesel engines. This company is a dominant force in the industry and is exceptionally well regarded. They had a keen interest in developing a Lean management system throughout their operations and had invested large amounts of time, energy, and money to help make the transformation. At the close of one particular event, as is customary, I was asked to say a few words of reflection about their accomplishments for the week, their Lean efforts to date, and the challenges that lay ahead. At the time, they were experiencing a great deal of fall out at the test cell at the end of the process just before final packing and shipping. Just outside this area were two dozen engines that had failed performance testing for one reason or another and were awaiting corrective action. The workforce had come to believe this was inevitable given the complexity of the product, but none the less they had committed resources to trace down each problem and attempt root cause problem solving. This had been going on for years. In fact, no one could remember a time when there weren’t engines sitting on the shop floor that had failed testing. Sometimes the floor was more crowded than others. Sometimes when things got really bad it would impact their downstream customers. That’s the point at which senior managers would become personally involved. This particular week there were lots of engines on the floor but they had enough inventory where their customer was not yet impacted. While I was not asked to have the team focus on this issue that week, I still felt compelled to ask questions. After all, right after safety, quality is one of the most important attributes for a process.

As part of my reflection I put up a picture of the area in front of the test cell that was so crowded with engines that you were unable to see the doors to the testing area. In fact, you could hardly walk between the engines. I spoke about the fact that even though the customer was not complaining this week it still was waste on a grand scale. It was an indicator of a process out of control. It was not only costly, but also demoralizing to the organization, creating a downward spiral of attitudes that make it difficult for people to maintain pride in what they do.

My next photo was of, and I’ll apologize in advance, the men’s room. There was a stall with the door hanging from one hinge, the paper dispenser was broken off the wall, and paper towel rolls were strewn about the floor. The surrounding areas were no better. Sorry for the mental picture, but there is a point to this. I had been visiting this location for long enough to know that it had been this way for at least a year if not longer.

My comment to them was that there is a direct connection between the mess of engines in front of the test cell and the mess in the restroom. Culture is what people do when no one is looking. The two areas are more tightly linked than anyone there could imagine. They are not just symptomatic of each other, there is a causative relationship between them. I spoke further about not only looking at the engineering analysis for each failure mode, but also looking at the general mindset by which we go about our day and carry out our work. A human being cannot turn their pride and general attitude on and off at will depending on each circumstance. This led into a discussion on the need to embed the mindsets of 5S much more deeply into the organization. I raised the warning flag that all the work we did to calculate flow rates, Takt Time, Kanban levels, and design complex value streams would go to waste if we didn’t also give 5S equal value to the engineering work we just completed. And yes, fixing the restroom and keeping it that way is directly linked to fixing the test failure problem in the shop. As you might imagine, the linkage was not all that easy to fathom for a company heavily vested into an MBO management system.

The director then got up to speak. He congratulated everyone on the great work they did all week, and said something to the effect of “yes we will do 5S, but moreover we will do…” He proceeded to go into a litany of more technical solutions that would be put in place. The tone was that while 5S was a “nice to do” item, these other things would have a more direct impact on bottom line performance and thus were much more important.

A year later the restroom stall still looked the same. So did the floor in front of the test cells. There was no business performance metric directly measuring the test failure rate, so there was no real focused on it.

So what is this thing we call 5S? Why don’t we just call it cleaning up? Why does it have to have a special name with Japanese origins? When we clean out the garage, we don’t call it 5S. Well maybe some of us Lean geeks do. But most people do not. Why do we need 5S’s that simply add up to a simple thing like keeping our work areas neat, clean, and orderly? Is this a case of consultants turning something very simple into something very complicated? Heck, I’ve even heard that Toyota has combined a couple of them and turned it into 4S. What’s magic about the original 5? Other companies have added safety and made it 6S. Which is right? Does it even matter? Is it any different than cleaning out the garage?

The fact is that more damage has been done to the acceptance of Lean culture by botched 5S roll outs than any other single tool. My colleague Mark Graban created a great video which was a parody about 5S going horribly wrong in the office.

Having your workforce question how many computer monitors have gone missing and how putting masking tape around them will help is not exactly how we want to build buy-in from the workforce for these new and uncomfortable ideas, is it?

In another instance, I was working for a manufacturing company where the plant manager decided to round up the tools boxes one night, empty them on the work benches and throw all the boxes in the dumpster. He was trying to make a statement for 5S. A clumsy one I’m afraid. For years afterwards we had to contend with a resentful workforce which associated Lean with the company having thrown away their kids pictures along with the tool boxes. Not an inspiring start to a Lean transformation.

Let’s start with some basics. The 5S’s are as follows. Keep in mind that this originated in Japan and the original words were Japanese. There are several English translations and the ones I prefer are as follows:

  1. Sort- Set apart the things you need for your day to day work from those you don’t.
  2. Set in Order- A visually obvious place for everything and everything in its place. The things you use most frequently are closer to you. The things used less frequently are further away.
  3. Shine- Make it look clean as well as neat and orderly.
  4. Standardize- Create Standard Work for keeping things in this newly created format.
  5. Sustain- Lead the organization to maintain this new level of orderliness, and, use the visual aspects of the workplace to aid in continuously finding and solving problems.

In inherently dangerous circumstances, the safety aspects of the job should be integrated and made the highest priority. The proper way should be the safest way.

All five of these elements apply to the tools you use to do your work; hammers and wrenches, books, computers, software applications, and cars. They also apply to the materials and information used to carry out daily work; cast iron, patient charts, data bases, and schedules.

This is true even if the items you work on consist of the information hidden away in your computer. Possibly even more so.

This is true even if you are in healthcare and you are involved in moving people from one step to another, rather than building widgets in the factory, or creating loan applications in bank.

The principles apply to everyone in every industry. Although, they may manifest themselves very differently from one setting to another.

A place for everything, everything in its place. And most relevant for this discussion, a process to maintain it that way over time.

Most of us have experienced the frustration when our garages gradually become disorderly and cluttered. We park the car more carefully as the open space is encroached with bicycles, Christmas ornaments, and that last tag sale item you just had to have. Eventually it reaches the point where you can’t park the car in the garage at all and out of frustration you dedicate a perfectly good Saturday morning to pulling everything out of the garage. You throw away stuff that you don’t need, including the aforementioned tag sale item, and put everything else back in its place, and finally sweep out the floor. Maybe this becomes the defining moment in your Spring cleaning ritual. After all, it’s a great excuse for getting outside. There is a deep sense of simple satisfaction when you pull your car back into the garage and everything is where it belongs. There is a subtle but genuine sense of pride in having done all this.

So is cleaning out the garage 5S? Can’t we just use common sense and apply the same process to the factory floor, the file cabinets in the office, the virtual spaces inside your computer, the waiting rooms in the primary care center? Isn’t it really just that simple? What’s the big deal? What’s the big benefit?

The difference lies not so much in how it’s cleaned and organized, but in how the newly organized space is utilized and managed. Is it simply a cleanup or is it a defining moment where we commit to continual improvement? Not just a New Year’s Day resolution to diet and exercise, or spring time ritual of cleaning the garage, but actually adopting a different way of managing ourselves?

We don’t 5S simply because it makes the work area look nice. It’s not simply targeted at “only” giving us a sense of pride in having things neat, clean, and orderly, although that is very important. We 5S for two much more fundamental reasons. First, it is the start of creating workspaces where normal and abnormal can be easily distinguished visually. The beginning of creating a culture of objective problem identification. Second, it provides the proving ground for leaders who are learning the necessary skills to become Lean coaches and who are dedicated to building the problem solving muscles of their organization.

If it is established that certain files can only be in designated spaces, in predetermined maximum quantities, and these rules are visually self evident, any abnormality will be obvious to the entire team, simultaneously, in real time. This is where the power of the 5S process begins. Now if that same system is utilized as a method of identifying problems in the work process people will see much deeper value in having put things in order. But we also recognize that we can outline visual spaces for the bicycles, the lawn equipment, and the tools in the garage. Isn’t that 5S as well? What is the difference? The difference is that the latter is an exercise in compliance which inspires hardly anyone. The prospect of better understanding how we effect our customers and continually engaging in making processes better, having a real say in how things are done is a whole different level of engagement.

Creating the visual workplace

The process starts with how you create the space.

First there is a Sort phase where we think critically about the work that takes place in the space and we make decisions as to what is needed and what is not. The things that are not needed are eliminated.

When we Set in Order, we are at the beginning stages of what separates 5S from cleaning out the garage. The remaining items are organized so that the things we need most often are set closer to the work envelope than those that are not used as often. To do this well we must think objectively about how we do our work. What are the things we do multiple times per day? What things do we only do once per day? What are the things we do weekly? Like the mindset in the creation of Standard Work, even if not as detailed or as tightly time bound, the principles are similar.

This is the first step in creating a visual workplace that clearly identifies what should be happening versus what is actually happening. On the factory floor, we have clearly marked spaces for tools, standard work instructions, and materials. In the office, we have clearly marked spaces for reference materials, standard work instructions, and files in progress. In health care, we have clearly marked spaces for medical equipment and patient information, medical supplies, and patient waiting areas. These examples all utilize the same principles in albeit different settings. In each situation, whether it be the pallets of aluminum castings, the stacks of file folders on the desk, or the patients standing in the reception area, we can visually see indications of process abnormalities. These abnormalities should then act as input to the teams’ problem solving methodology. These are all forms of rudimentary Standard Work that make problems more visible than they would otherwise be in more traditional circumstances.

We then get to the Shine phase. It’s easy to fall into an image of degreasing machinery on a shop floor and think of it as exclusively a manufacturing thing. Certainly, that is one application. Even in the office we have all those papers piled high and the dust bunnies under the desk. We also face the mess that is hidden behind our computer screens. Our hard drives have become the cardboard boxes of our time, filled with stuff we have long forgotten or can’t find when we need it. Duplicate files under the wrong names, improperly backed up. Cleaning up our virtual world may have even larger positive benefits than the physical cleaning originally envisioned with the creation of 5S. We all promise ourselves that we will get to it someday. Typically, our computer files tend to become virtual clutter and disarray. No different than the old coffee cups that gather around work benches on the factory floor.

It is the Standardize phase that creates the mechanism for cleaning up, putting back, and replenishing. This is when we allow time for reiterating the Shine and Set in Order at the end of each day. Also, it’s where we set the rules of flow in place. If there is a FIFO lane of insurance policies going into an underwriting process, there must be a reflexive reaction to “stop the line” once the max level of the FIFO is reached and examine what is causing the abnormality. The entire team must be aware of the line stop (Andon) and must use this information at the next team meeting to start the problem-solving process.

It's in the Sustain phase that the difference really becomes apparent between cleaning out the garage and 5S. We are moving the leadership model away from fire fighter and into the mode of coaching the problem-solving capabilities of the team. This is where the leadership behaviors of humble and appreciative inquiry, the tools of Leader Standard Work (i.e. Reflection Meetings, Gemba Walks, Andon Response, and 1 on 1 subordinate development), and the team skills of structured problem solving all come into play. We routinely find problems in flow which provide clues as to where the real problems lie and in turn, we inspire the team to find and fix more problems each day. That is at the heart of Lean and it’s readily accessible in the early stages of a Lean transformation. But we must have the constancy of purpose to not give up once we have cleaned out the garage and parked the car. The cleaning and parking is only the start of the process.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, 5S is the proving ground where an organization develops Lean leaders. While people feel the discipline is hard to master, the fact is that most human beings at some level agree that having a place for everything and finding it there when it’s needed is a good thing. Thus, explaining the reasons why this is important is not the problem. Generally, the processes associated with 5S are also very basic and simple. So, teaching people the process by which we keep the work area neat and clean is not the problem. But we must fully appreciate that when we walk by a shadow board with an outline of a broom and a dustpan, but the tools are nowhere to be found and the floor is dirty, there is an underling leadership problem at the core of the situation.

If we can’t lead a 5S effort and sustain it, we certainly will not be able to lead the implementation of any of the other Lean tools and sustain them. as they are all more complex and less intuitively obvious as to their benefits. So perhaps the most important reason that all Kaizen starts and ends with 5S is for that purpose. It’s to allow the team to come together under its leadership and become an organism that continually seeks out problems and then exercises its problem solving muscle to solve it. This allows us to stand on that newly constructed platform once and for all and to find and fix the next problem.

Back to the engine shop we talked about at the beginning of the story. About three years later, I had the opportunity to visit them again. My words from the closeout must have landed somewhere deep in the collective psyche of the people only to resurface at a later date. The first place they brought me was the men’s room that I had photographed for the closeout three years prior. It was neat and clean. The door was repaired and the paper dispenser was replaced. There were no rolls on the floor. We then started our Gemba walk at the test cells. There was not a single failed engine in front of the test cell. The floor was clean.

Looks like there was more to what mom was telling us than meets the eye.


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