Back to basics with 5S

By Robert Spector

Lean and Six Sigma are the two of today's most popular business improvement approaches. Six Sigma drives improvements in quality and reliability by reducing variation using a problem-solving method known as DMAIC, define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. Lean is a proven approach to eliminating waste in new product development, manufacturing, and distribution in order to cut lead-times and investment, increase flexibility, and reduce costs. Lean involves using as little as possible of the available resources to deliver value to customers.

When a company-wide lean or Six Sigma program is begun, the first challenge that managers and improvement teams face is knowing exactly where to begin improvement efforts. Waste elimination is contingent on first being able to identify waste. Likewise, it is difficult to pinpoint root causes of variability in an unstable work environment. In many workplaces, firefighting is common, and problem solving is reactive rather than proactive. Trying to implement an improvement program in such an environment is a formidable challenge.

This is where 5S comes in. 5S is an approach to waste and variability identification and elimination that relies on stabilizing the work environment. 5S is a simple and immensely practical approach to improvement that can achieve great results in a short time.

5S steps

In the sort step, necessary items for the workplace are separated from unnecessary items and subsequently removed. A red tag campaign is conducted to evaluate items based on their usefulness and frequency of use. Unnecessary items crowd the workplace and make it difficult to find and keep important items near the work area. These items can include obsolete equipment and inventory, broken tools, scrap, old files, etc. Safety and productivity are improved as a result of the extra floor space created.

This step involves installing systems so that necessary items are always located in logically predetermined locations. Based on the inventory classification of the red tag campaign, items are placed in locations based on frequency of use. Frequently used items are placed at or near the workplace while infrequently used items are stored in specified locations. When items are stored in logical places, employees don’t waste time looking for the appropriate tools or fixtures. The gold standard is a workplace organized in a way that items can be retrieved within 30 seconds with a minimal number of steps.

The third step consists of regular cleaning activities that minimize machine downtime.. Observers are amazed when they see how incredibly clean the shop floors are of world-class Japanese manufacturing plants. Daily cleaning of machines and production areas reduces breakdowns and maintenance costs while improving safety and quality.

The goal of this step is to maintain best practices in the work area. This is achieved by providing visual warnings as well as standardized work methods and procedures. Equipment is marked and labeled so that observing and inspecting equipment can be conducted easily. Anyone on the shop floor should be able to determine when a piece of equipment is malfunctioning, increasing response times and reducing downtime.

This last step involves developing habits to implement the 5S philosophy on an ongoing basis. If 5S is to be successful, a regular, detailed appraisal of the workplace is recommended. This audit ensures that the focus remains on maintaining the new standard or workplace organization.

It's clear that 5S is much more than just a housekeeping program. It is a structured program that results in dramatic changes and equally dramatic results.

Robert E. Spector is a certified enterprise lean/Six Sigma black belt practitioner with more than 15 years of management consulting experience serving manufacturing and service industry clients. Spector is manager at Capgemini, a management consulting company, in Atlanta, Ga.  


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