How to Get Your 5S Initiative Up and Running dimdimich / Thinkstock

How to Get Your 5S Initiative Up and Running

Some advice on how to tell operations they need to do 5S and get them excited about it.

Those of you grew up with Sesame Street may recall that each episode was brought to you by a different letter of the alphabet. I experienced my own version of this phenomenon three years ago, when much of my job suddenly became all about the letter “S”—or more accurately five of them.

I’m referring, of course, to 5S—sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. Countless companies throughout the world have used this well-known Lean tool to significantly improve their workplace organization and maintenance. And in late 2011 my company decided to become one of them in a really big way by challenging 36 of our facilities to become fully 5S’d at once—and tapping me to oversee their efforts. 

In answer to your most likely questions, yes, almost all of them ultimately succeeded, and no, I don’t think our success was a fluke. In fact I believe it’s possible for almost any organization to pull off an equally effective 5S deployment—provided they have the right resources, mindset and level of commitment in place.

With that in mind here’s some handy advice to help you get your own widespread 5S initiative up and running.

What’s the best way to tell operations they need to do 5S and get them excited about it?

Unfortunately this is a lot like asking, “What’s the best way to tell my kids to pick up their rooms?” because the typical 5S program involves a lot of cleaning and organizing, and in the words of the late Carol Channing, “Everybody hates housework.”

Although you can’t change the fact that your locations may not stand up and cheer when they initially hear they’ll be involved in a 5S implementation, you can make the prospect considerably more palatable by:

  • Positively promoting it. Whether it’s before-and-after pictures or testimonials from users who have already completed a 5S project, there’s plenty of compelling evidence about how effective this discipline can be. At first you may have to draw these examples from the Internet or companies whose programs you’re emulating. But as your own 5S gains traction, they could just as easily come from the early adopters within your company. Either way, use your company’s internal communications tools to “sell” 5S often—and in varied ways. 
  • Providing an Exhibit A. One great idea we found in our research was to ask facility managers to 5S their offices first. This small but powerful step will give your locations’ personnel a vivid example of how 5S truly works and demonstrate that your managers are fully on board with the initiative in a way that no internal memo or early morning speech can.

How long should a 5S take?

Few if any operations have the kind of flexibility that will permit them to completely clear their schedules and focus all of their energies on becoming 5S’d.  Instead, most will have to figure out how to get it done while still capably fulfilling their day-to-day job responsibilities.

Respect this reality by:

  • Providing a long project runway. Choose a beginning and end date for your 5S implementation that’s close enough to place it high on people’s agendas but far enough away to accommodate their varied workloads and busy schedules. (Our company gave operations three months.)
  • Giving advance notice. As soon as you know your 5S implementation is going to be a go, let your operations know that it’s going to happen, even if the kick-off date is still several months away. They’ll appreciate the heads up, and you’ll appreciate the improved state of readiness it will enable.  
  • Supplying guidelines, not deadlines. It’s perfectly okay to provide your operations with recommendations about how long each step should take; for example we advised our personnel to plan on about one week apiece for sorting, setting in order and shining. But resist the urge to micromanage operations beyond that point, and trust your operations’ personnel to make the call about when they get things done. It may cause you to lose a little sleep in the short run. But it will ultimately win you more allies and a vastly superior rate of compliance in the long run.

How can companies best support their operations’ 5S efforts?

It’s important to do everything you can to equip locations with all the tools they’ll need to succeed – and that means being practical as well as cerebral.  In addition to making sure they’re given clear and comprehensive 5S training and reference materials, this might entail: 

  • Providing a starter kit. Much of 5S is very no-nonsense and hands-on, which is why it’s advisable to ensure that locations have tangible items like labelmakers, marking tape or paint in hand as soon as implementation begins. That way they won’t have to sweat the details of tracking those kinds of things down and wondering if they have the right ones when they’re ready to move forward.
  • Designating a formal support-the-sort effort. It’s much easier for operations to part with unused or unwanted equipment, supplies and other long-hoarded materials if they know those things might  be used elsewhere—or if they don’t have to work too hard to dispose of them. During our big push, we designated a point person to be in charge of reallocation and disposal for our facilities, and it worked quite well. However other viable support possibilities include creating an internal web portal to facilitate the exchange of unwanted items—or supplying the local contact information for various charities that might be willing to pick things up.
  • Making standardization decisions at the corporate level. Asking individual operations to come up with their own standardization plans is about as efficient as asking all of your employees to design and use their own versions of your corporate logo. Let the experts in your art department or ad agency determine standard color schemes, typefaces, signage designs and recommended layouts for things like your 5S bulletin boards—or borrow liberally from the best practices you’ve already seen in use at one of your existing operations. It will spare your individual operations a lot of unnecessary work and create a more professional and unified look throughout your company.

Are there any helpful hints for getting operations started, or helping them get their work done more easily?

That’s a question you’ll probably hear quite frequently in the initial weeks of a launch, especially if you have large, complex facilities, because the bigger or more multifaceted a location it is, the more likely its personnel are to become potentially overwhelmed by all there is to do.

Some effective tactics or approaches you might wish to recommend include:

  • Dividing and conquering. Rather than asking one team to 5S an entire facility, it’s wiser to divide the facility into several different areas and tap 5S individual team leads to be in charge of each of those areas. Furthermore, it’s smart to let each of those leads choose the 5S team members for his or her section and then to let those teams divide the things that need to be done in their area into even smaller steps.
  • Creating spaghetti charts. When addressing the “set in order” portion of their areas’ 5S, encourage teams to use this formal Lean methodology (or some of the others they have at their disposal). It will effectively capture motion and reveal patterns of activity—or pockets of inefficiency—that might otherwise be overlooked.
  • Setting up convenient shine stations. Don’t make the act of dusting, polishing, vacuuming, etc., any harder than it needs to be. Before the “shining” step begins, ensure all of your teams have a highly accessible and fully equipped cleaning supply station nearby. And by nearby, we really do mean close; if people have to walk more than 50 to 75 feet to clean, the station is situated too far.

Is it absolutely necessary for every operation to undertake all of the 5S shine and standardize steps right now?

Unless your organization and its operations have unlimited funds, this may be one of the most challenging gray areas you face. After all, how far do you really wish to go to ensure that all of your operations follow the same color schemes and other standardized protocols? And how much financial pressure are you willing to apply to operations that have just redone things or already have all their funds spoken for?

Although there is no absolute right or wrong answer to this conundrum, some of the following policies and practices might help you establish a healthy middle ground:

  • Viewing the shining and standardizing steps as a process rather than an event. It’s a rare company that’s able to get all of its 5S’d operations 100 percent shined and standardized right out of the gate. Some operations will simply need more time to get there than others, and breathing down their necks won’t help them get there any faster. Give operations the grace period they need. Then encourage them to do what they can to make things look as good as they can—like cleaning and waxing tired floors or taking a sponge to dingy walls—in the interim.
  • Grandfathering recent improvements in. Rather than requiring a facility that’s just made cosmetic improvements to re-do those improvements simply for the sake of getting the 5S check in the block, consider permitting it to keep things the way they are until the next time those same improvements are needed. (After all, 5S is a Lean tool, and no true Lean project would advocate waste.)
  • Involving vendors as appropriate. Don’t assume that your locations are the only ones capable of putting a fresh face on things. If your operations are leasing items such as equipment or furniture, it’s possible that those suppliers might be willing to provide newer or better-maintained versions of those items upon request. For example, some of our facilities got their suppliers to agree to touch up or fully repaint industrial equipment. Not every vendor will say yes. But it never hurts to ask.

On a final note just as it’s important to decide which 5S standards your company is willing to temporarily bend, it’s also essential to determine which are so important that every location must comply with them no matter what. In our company’s case, many of those standards involved safety (such as putting a power strip under every conference room table so that people didn’t have to plug their laptops into walls and create a trip hazard). In yours, they might include doing away with outdated slogans or outdated lighting that’s not energy-efficient. Regardless, decide which standards are truly non-negotiable, and make no apologies about insisting that operations abide by them.

If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

Over the past few years, we’ve had the opportunity to live the answer to that question multiple times, because once we finished 5S-ing the locations mentioned in this article, we began rolling 5S out to our facilities in other parts of the world. And naturally, we strove to take advantage of lessons learned. As a result, those subsequent efforts include some slightly new or improved practices such as:

  • Stressing the “sustain” step right out of the gate. It’s far easier for operations to keep up all the good 5S work they’ve done if they develop a framework for sustaining things before or during their execution of the first four steps rather than after. Make it a point to emphasize the importance of the fifth S as much as you can during training—and to recommend that locations begin shaping their sustainability plans from day one.
  • Pushing the importance of 5S self-audits. More often than not, it’s the difference between an operation that maintains its 5S excellence and one that quickly begins to lose it is grassroots vigilance. Take a page from our book and challenge your operations to begin scheduling self-audits—complete with punch lists of things that need to be corrected—immediately after they pass their official 5S audit.
  • Increasing the level of direction that’s driven from the top. Even in a very autonomous organization, it’s possible to leave too many 5S decisions up to the discretion of individual teams—and ultimately to wind up with very different levels of “shine” and “standardize” as a result of it. By providing locations with more specific and concrete input about everything from exactly what “clean” means to exactly how and where they should place things like floor markings or signs, you’ll help reduce ambiguity and improve consistency.
  • Having uniform 5S communications boards. It may seem like a small thing. But if you’re going to have an across-the-board 5s effort, it makes sense to have a literal across-the-board bulletin board, too. And yes, you most definitely need to have one of these boards at every operation—because it’s a daily reminder of the standard each operation is striving for—and a readily available accessible source of inspiration or input.

But one thing we definitely wouldn’t do differently is embracing 5S so wholeheartedly in the first place, because we’ve seen it change every one of our practicing locations for the better.

Charlie Jacobs is director, process improvement with APL Logistics.

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