5S is a Problem Prevention Tool

Workplace Management or 5S, as it is known widely, is an initiative that was grossly misunderstood by most of the practitioners. More than the practitioners, it is the facilittors who are supposed to be blamed as they have taught the concepts wrong or misguided the practitioners. There are few myths regarding the application of 5S as Workplace Management System. It is also considered as a “start-stop” event. When you advise someone of practicing 5S, they say, “Oh! We are aware of it, we have done it several times in the past! We are looking for something more than 5S!”

At the outset, 5S is not a “start-stop” activity that one can do several times. It is a habit, like Kaizen™, being practiced every day, by everybody, everywhere in the organization.

Myth # 1: 5S means Good house keeping

5S is not a house-keeping initiative. To be precise, 5S is a problem identification & problem preventing program. 5S is practiced to habituate identification of abnormalities. Abnormality can be defined as “anything that is not in perfect or best condition!” Abnormalities, when allowed to remain, develop into problems. Hence 5S is practiced to nip the problems in the bud, resolve it when they are small in nature. As we take care of the smaller things, bigger ones will take care of themselves.

A program focused on mopping, sweeping and dusting is a housekeeping program.  If the 5S initiatives practiced do not lead to identification of abnormalities or problem solving, then this reduces to a good housekeeping initiative. Good housekeeping can be a by-product of a good 5S initiative being practiced.

Let us consider a situation. As you walk along the Gemba, let us say, in an office environment. We see a paper lying on the floor. The paper is soiled too as a few would have stepped on it. As a good housekeeping initiative, the paper will be removed and moved to the trash can. However, in the practice of 5S, this will not be done. The question of “needed but not here” is not answered. If it is in a shop-floor, it could be a nut or a screw!

Finding a paper or a nut or a screw on the floor is an abnormality. When we identify an abnormality, the same is not ignored but investigated. What is this abnormality? From where has it originated? How long it is present? What if it is left as is? Why this has happened? What should be done to prevent the recurrence? – All these questions need to be raised and answers to all of them should be sought. In short, 5S initiative should lead to the 5W1H process. It should also lead to asking 5 Whys or at times, even more Whys. There is a strong link between 5S, 5W1H & 5Y.

In a good housekeeping habit, what would have happened to the paper found on the floor? It would have landed in the trash can! The paper might have had important information or it would have been a part of an important document. Landing on trash will do harm in such cases. Hence 5S does not mean good housekeeping alone but it promotes the questioning habit which is essential for Lean!

Myth # 2: 5S is a step-by-step methodology:

5S is not a step by step methodology. You cannot complete Seiri and then do Seiton for next 3 months. All the pillars of the 5S have to go together. We cannot say, we will do Seiri this quarter and do Seiton for the next quarter. It is not a “start-stop” event that you started and stopped for a quarter. One cannot practice Seiri without doing Seiton. As one asks the question “Is it needed here?” in Seiri, it paves way for Seition, a systematic arrangement to keep things in the assigned location.

Standardization happens at every element. Creating a look for list, Needed – how much is decided by the standards, needed where is decided by the standards, needed when is decided by the Standards. The frequency of the higher authorities visiting the Red Tag Holding Area is standardized, the schedule is standardized. Similarly, in Seiton, the colour codes need standardization across the organization. What to store, where to store and how much to store need standardization.

In the third element, Seiso – tools need standardization, the cleaning practice needs standardization, the location of the cleaning elements needs standardization.

In the fifth element, the auditing schedule, the time bound action plan with accountability &  the discipline of asking 5W1H are all symptoms of standardization.

5S Builds Self Discipline

Lean programs often start with 5S because it builds, and demonstrates, a culture of self-discipline.  The fifth pillar, Shitsuke, which means “do-it-by-yourself”, will happen only if each one of us who practice 5S have self-discipline. Self-discipline is required to follow the standards.  This self-discipline forms the basis for further process improvements such as standard work, KANBAN and autonomous maintenance. 

Without a good 5S program in place, it is difficult to see the problems in the earlier stage – say abnormal condition, until they had become big problems. A good 5S program displays a facility’s culture & mind-set and allows problem prevention.  Everything has a place, everything is in its place, and ready for use, and when they are not we start asking why.  This is the beginning of a 5S program that forms the foundation of a Lean transformation. 

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