5S is probably the most common lean method applied. It is seemingly simple, progress is visual, and it involves everyone. However, the average lifespan of a 5S effort is a paltry one year. This is worse than doing nothing at all. Getting the organization to put this much effort into something and then not sustain it sends the unintended message that their efforts were not valuable. It is disrespectful.
So how do you sustain the 5S efforts? The following steps include actions to take during its installation, and afterward.
1. Communicate the purpose. The purpose of 5S is not safety, discipline, engagement, tidiness, being "tour-ready" or improving efficiency. Those are benefits, but the primary purpose is to be able to spot problems quickly. Look inside a NASCAR garage, and you are likely to see the cleanest garage you've ever seen. Why? Because if there is one drop of oil on the ground, I want to know about that problem right away. I don't want to find the problem 10 laps from the finish line. I want to find that problem immediately. 5S, when done right, allows you to walk into any area and spot abnormalities easily. People need to have a clear understanding of the purpose to be able to make good decisions about its use.
2. Audit at the leadership level. Most organizations get some kind of audit and check into place. Some do it from inside the team, some from peers from other groups, and sometimes from a central team. Audits are inherently wasteful but necessary. The leadership of the organization also needs to do a form of audit. What's the purpose of their audit? It's less about accountability and more about finding systemic barriers to 5S success through direct observation and engagement. These are the problems that leaders must solve to help enable sustainable 5S.
3. Periodically change your audits. Audits can become stale and routine. When they do, they stop becoming effective. Change the audit methods periodically. You might change the scoring, change the roles, change the frequency or change the evaluation method. Audits are about seeing what's working and what's not. Sometimes you need to look from a different angle. Changing how people view the process can help them see something they missed before, as well as prevent them from taking the audits for granted.
4. During a crisis, double your audits. If an area is in the midst of a crisis, be it production or quality or anything, what is the natural reaction? Do you drop the nice-to-have audits, or do you double them? Dropping is the common reaction but the wrong one. During a crisis, you want your process as stable as possible so you can focus in on the challenge or abnormal condition causing the crisis. If 5S is truly connected to helping you maintain a stable process, then it is more important than ever to sustain it. Not only does dropping the audit during a crisis send the wrong message, it can make recovery even harder.
5. Escalate problems. If audits find breakdowns in the process but there are no consequences, then what's the point? There must be an escalation process with consequences for failures. For example, one organization knows that if an area is out of control, they run the risk of serious problems. Therefore, if you fail one audit, you have a chance to correct things. But if you fail two, your area is shut down. And management must come to the area to figure out what is going so wrong and what to do about it. There must be an escalation of breakdowns in 5S for corrective action to be taken seriously.
6. Eliminate doors and drawers. You can only solve problems of an organization when you can find them. What's the purpose of doors on cabinets and drawers? Primarily, to hide the clutter. We don't want to hide the clutter we want to eliminate it. Eliminating doors and drawers help make observations and finding abnormalities easier.
5S is relatively simple. But simple doesn't always mean it's easy. If 5S is worth doing, it's worth doing the hard work of sustaining the efforts. Only then do you reap the gains from this investment.
Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."