Sunday, November 20, 2011


Most of us who have worked in industrial settings for any length of time and have been involved in continuous improvement initiatives would have seen the implementation of the 5S system. Typically elaborated as “sort, set in order, shine, standardise and sustain” (or other “S’s” of that ilk), the approach is typically associated with physical housekeeping, and is a subset of the broader TPM philosophy which spawned the Lean movement. Organisations typically follow a regimented set of steps in “implementing 5S”, often missing the point in the process.

If we are to unlock the true value of 5S, we need to think more deeply into the origins of the approach. In doing so, it soon becomes obvious that here we are dealing not only with a tool for neatening up the shop floor environment, but a powerful management philosophy which, if successfully implemented, can in itself deliver fundamental productivity improvement. This was indeed not intended to be simply a bunch of steps to follow for cleaning up a messy shop floor, but an overarching way of operating, from the top of an organisation to the bottom. Let me explain.  

The first S, SEIRI, is about organisation. It refers to sorting the necessary from the unnecessary. Often, managers allow the hangovers from previous initiatives to remain on their agendas, cluttering the management landscape. Soon daily routine comprises a hotchpotch of unrelated activities, only half of which add any real value. Defunct meeting structures are allowed to continue, unnecessary meetings are held, the wrong people are involved in meetings…the list goes on. Since so much time, money and effort has been invested in these various programmes, we often have a hard time letting go. Take time out to ask yourself what you are trying to achieve, and then sort your management activities to support your objectives. Anything not in support of these objectives must be considered unnecessary and discarded.

The second S, SEITON, concerns neatness. It refers to having “a place for everything and everything in its place”. When trying to manage issues across a broad spectrum, it becomes so easy to lose track of what needs to be done. Things fall through the cracks and often a last-minute charge is needed to catch up. A prime example would be the type of activity witnessed in the days before an audit. There are a few simple things you can do to establish a measure of routine. Schedule different types of activities for different days of the week, and stick to this schedule. Try to get the managers who report to you to do the same, to gain alignment and establish a common “drumbeat” for managerial activities. Map out all of the meetings and forums in your area of influence across the various levels in the organisation, and get these to complement each other. Reduce duplication as much as possible. Soon the limited resources at your disposal will become aligned and you will be able to better apply your efforts to where they can have the most impact.

The third S, SEISO, refers to cleaning and polishing. The aim is not just to make the environment look good, but to expose problems through close inspection. The philosophy is that if problems can be dealt with at this micro level, far bigger problems will be prevented. It is about being proactive. The message from a management perspective is that attention to detail is essential. Merely demanding high performance from your staff without an understanding of the true nature of problems will not deliver results. This does not imply that people must not take ownership of their responsibilities and that you, as the leader, will solve all of their problems. It means instead that you will have empathy for those you lead, allowing you to take a more balanced view around resource allocation, when to back off and give people space and also when to drive harder because complacency has set in.  

You can only deal with the little problems if you are close to the detail. In my humble opinion, the visionary leader who inspires his people with no sense of the detail is inappropriate in a manufacturing and operations environment. You do need to inspire your subordinates, but you also have to have a sense of the detail. It is a rare animal who can successfully do both, but in my experience these types of individuals make the best managers.  Shigeo Shingo emphasised the Japanese management approach, which is for managers to be responsible for performance and workers to be responsible for processes. Managers therefore need to map out the processes which drive performance, with subordinates responsible for the execution of these processes, improving them over time. A manager who is not detail oriented cannot execute on this philosophy.

The fourth S, SEIKETSU, refers to standardisation. At management level, employees are naturally strong-willed and often very innovative. To establish effective routine however, best practices need to be assimilated and followed by everyone. The more certainty you can create, the better the environment becomes for controlled innovation of the kind that adds sustainable value to your business. That means that “bad” management behaviours are simply not tolerated, and everyone on the team has a clear understanding of his/her contribution. All departments need to play by similar rules, for example. If performance standards are vastly different between departments, resentment quickly builds and morale suffers. Standardisation need not mean the same hard standards or specifications for everyone. On the contrary, at management level one needs to be able to assess and appreciate differences between sites, departments and jobs. The standardisation referred to here is a standard amount of stretch in the objectives of each department, site or individual. Everyone should feel equally challenged. This is difficult to do, but for starters, root out glaring discrepancies in standards. Engage with those at the rock face to understand individual operations in more detail and keep an open mind. Management will be viewed as being more objective, and commitment from the lower levels will increase.

The fifth S, SHITSUKE, concerns the aspect of discipline. It is around maintaining established standards. This S is not a stand-alone activity, but permeates all areas of a 5S implementation. If managers display a lack of discipline, don’t expect much more from those lower down the ladder. To gain discipline, individuals need to have a clear understanding of their roles in the business and the importance of what they have to be disciplined about. While management can largely define operating frameworks at shop floor, (though this is changing as teams become more empowered), at management level there is a measure of negotiation involved. People need to buy in to routine – they will not just fall into an unthinking regimen of management activities. There has to be a clear view of the bigger organisational picture and how management activities fit into and drive overall performance. Communicating this vision and how it is to be achieved is the job of senior management.

In summary then, management can benefit immensely by regarding 5S as a central philosophy, the key aspects of which are:
  • A sense of order is essential for improved productivity
  • Total participation is critical for success
  • Focus on the basics and the bigger issues will be more apparent and easier to solve
  • Be proactive rather than reacting after the fact
  • Follow procedures and standards – short cuts could be costly. Be consistent as a leader.

5S is often viewed as one of the first stages of a lean manufacturing change process on the shop flooor. Consider its principles as the foundation for a world class management approach also.