For those of you who know nothing of the 5S system, this title will seem odd. For those who are just being introduced to the 5S system, you are probably forming some opinions about this method, probably not all good opinions.

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I wanted to write this post to defend the 5S system as I think it gets a bad rap. I often see people react to a mention of the 5S system with a set of rolled eyes, or a groan; thinking that it is a simple “clean the place up” effort and that we have much more important work to do. Many fail to see how the 5S system enables everything else we do, and how it affects our level of attentiveness to the details.

Here are two reasons why I think the 5S system is important:

  • It is a fundamental building block to standardization.
  • It sets the tone for how we do business.

What is the 5S system?

The 5S system is represented by a series of 5 words, as you would guess each beginning with the letter “S” that, when applied correctly, leads to a more clean and organized workplace. The exact words used may vary slightly from the original Japanese translation (yes, another Toyota Production System method), but approximate the following:

Term Japanese Equivalent Description
Sort Seiri Sort the things we don’t use often from the things that we do use often (throw a bunch of stuff away).
Shine Seiton Now that we have access, let’s do a deep cleaning.
Set in Order Seiso When we bring the needed items back in, let’s place them carefully – each item having a dedicated space and located according to frequency of use.
Standardize Seiketsu Decide on a set of rules for how we are going to work in this area and maintain our level of organization.
Sustain Shitsuke We need someone to come in once and a while and check on us… to keep us moving ahead in the right direction.

These 5 ideas are designed to be applied in the order as listed above. A few tips for success:

  • Consider a first big effort to make a good start – maybe 1 or 2 days – call it a 5S Blitz. Get everyone involved. Much better than 30 minutes every Friday at the end of the day.
  • When in doubt, throw it out. We tend to collect way too much stuff over the years. Of course, recycle where you can, but the key is to get it out of your work area.
  • This absolutely must be done by the people who work in the area in order to develop ownership – contracting it out is the first step towards bitter disappointment.
  • Make talking about 5S and working on continuous improvement a priority. I would not go much longer than 30 days between structured discussions.

In detail, here are the two reasons why I think the 5S System is so important, despite the frustration we sometimes feel towards it.

5S as a Fundamental Building Block

Early in my career, I worked for an organization that was going through a big change. We were in the beginning stages of implementing a business system that had many elements associated with it: lean, kaizen, RCFA, RCM, Standard Work, etc. etc. As it would turn out, the 5S system was the place to start.

Of course, we all played along, doing what we were told, but behind the scenes most of us where scratching our heads a bit, thinking “the old man is crazy…but let’s give him what he wants.” At first, we applied the 5S system for one reason only: because that is what we were told to do. I soon noticed that there was more at stake here, and the fact that we started with the 5S system was a stroke of genius.

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As we moved on to the more difficult aspects of our improvement journey (standard work and RCFA for example), we began to realize that the little things matter. Not only do they matter, but they matter a lot. If not for our foundation in 5S, I am not sure if we would have been ready to manage the little things. If we cannot keep the top of the workbench clean, how can we maintain total dissolved solids within a narrow band?

I look back now and realize that the attention to all of these very visible little details helped us to grow. I think it was the beginning of the daily discipline we all needed to grow our capabilities; without the 5S system, this would have been very difficult, if not impossible.

5S Sets the Tone

In my life experience, I have also come to realize that each work team within an organization (even the organization itself) takes on its own cultural identity. What is considered good or bad, acceptable or not acceptable varies a bit between work teams.

I have come to learn that the sum of the conditions that make up a work area (the cleanliness, the level of organization, the lighting, the temperature, etc.) are one of the single most important factors that communicate these acceptable cultural norms that we build as a team.

Think of an auto mechanic. Picture one that works in a dingy dark workshop, with oil puddled on the floor and broken parts strung out from corner to corner. What is the quality of work that you would expect to see from someone working in that environment? As a consumer of these repair services, you will likely think to yourself, “well this might not be the best work, but it had better be cheap!”

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You can trust me……

Think of the opposite side of the coin. Think of that same mechanic working at a dealership under the most ideal conditions. They greet you at your car and carefully lay paper on the seat and floorboards. They take your vehicle back to a work bay that is well lit and that contains all of the tools that they will need to perform the necessary repairs, all arranged in a neat and orderly fashion. As a consumer in this situation, you are probably thinking, “this is going to be a little pricey, but at least it will be done right.”

Edgar Leon, co-owner of Auto Pros with his wife Reneé, stands proud in his garage March 16. Auto Pros LLC was named Small Business of the Year by the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, an award that Leon says helps to validate their business.  (Photo by Philip

…or you can trust me!

If you are thinking in these terms, then the mechanic working in these environments is probably thinking the same thing. We all work to some level of expectation that is set by our environment.

I think back to my time in the military and the shaving of our heads, the uniforms, the constant training and cleaning, and the attention to the smallest of all details. I think about the things we accomplished at such a young age (I happened to be assigned to a submarine). Would any of this have been possible without the constant attention to having a clean and organized workplace? The ironic part of the story is that for all of the responsibility placed on us, most of us were considered too young to rent a car or legally drink a beer after returning from a long trip to sea; a bit of a head scratcher.

Your environment matters.

messy-desk

Your accountant?

Conclusion

The next time you find yourself grousing a bit about the next meeting on 5S, or the results of your latest 5S audit, try to think of the big picture. Does it matter that much that we put all of our tools away when the work is done? Does it matter that much that you have a clean desk? I would propose that big things are built from little things, and therefore the little things matter a lot.

Best of Luck

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