Lean Transformations Group

Getting at the Larger Purpose of 5S

“Go see, ask why, show respect.”

These words of former Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho have become fundamental lean principles. Most lean practitioners know this and aim to apply these words to their problem solving and strategy work. We often forget these principles when it comes to 5S, however.

For years, I have wondered why so many 5S (Sort, Straighten, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain) programs are ultimately abandoned. The point of 5S—to make the work easier for the worker by relieving the burden of movement and searching for what is needed—is too often completely missed. As a result, the “5S effect” can become an even greater burden on workers. Then the opportunity for leaders to show respect by engaging workers in continuous improvement efforts is lost.

Why does this happen? “Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect” provides a framework for trying to find the answer. (It make take a few rounds as well, as you can see in my own thinking process below).

Go see

For 17 years in my work as a consultant, I have been invited to go to gemba, the place where the real value creating work gets done in any business/organization. In this time I have seen shadow boards sparsely populated with tools and a lot of taped and painted lines on floors that may correspond to some past anthropological study of production, but usually don’t seem to have any relevance to the current work being done. I’ve also seen a tremendous amount of signage that is so dusty you could write, “Wash me!” on it.

Ask Why

From workers, I hear, “It really did not help…”

From supervisors, “Things changed, and it was no longer right…”

From management, “No one was accountable…”

There is an alternative, however, and I have seen it. This is to create what I like to call “no audit sustainability” when it comes to 5S. This starts with the optimistic outlook that the people who are doing the work, the real value creators, come to work each day wanting to solve problems and create value. And, given the opportunity—through a process they are capable of continuously correcting, updating, and improving—workers can use 5S to eliminate burden/waste in such a way that allows them to create more value.

Go See

I always ask…

  • Is the process and the work zone safe?
  • Is the 5S set up to minimize the burden on the worker to make it easier for the worker to do the work?
  • Can we see what the value added work to be done in the area is? It should stand out proudly!
  • Has the process, the work area and the design of the product been simplified to reduce the number of tools involved in the job?
  • Is the sequence of movement logical? In other words, does the work flow?
  • If we see all work as three steps (get ready, do the work, put away), can the worker flow smoothly through these stages?
  • Is the work that is planned for the area consistent with the setup of the area?

Ask Why

  • Why is the person doing the work not engaged in improving the layout (5S)?
  • Why is leadership not engaged with the workers to make the work and work station safer?
  • Why does the organization give permission for the current state to be the way it is?
  • Why might the organization not see the value of eliminating waste?

Show Respect

  • Ask the worker, what would make it easier for you to do the work?
  • Does the worker have ideas to simplify the work so that it requires fewer tools (or no tools)?!
  • Do different shifts of workers agree on the way things are set up or was only one person during one shift engaged in improving the work?
  • If the worker were the boss, how would this person set up the area?
  • Ask the manger, how do you introduce new products?
  • What does the manager look for?
  • What tools does the manager need to purchase frequently?

When we consider 5S at this level, 5S transforms from a burden on the worker and supervisor to a meaningful tool for learning and continuous improvement. Once you have the answers to these questions, the goal is to show respect to your team members by doing something with all of this good thinking!

For leaders, this means taking action based on the ideas offered from workers and managers since ideas for improvement must start with them if they are going to be sustained. It means running experiments on new set ups and asking workers and managers to show how the new way of working is an improvement. Lastly, it means demonstrating that as a leader, you are observing the changes being made and appreciate all of the thinking involved.

Ideally, 5S is a focal point for understanding the intersection of the person doing the work and the design of the work (the process). Team members use clear visual tools to see the work more clearly together, learn together, and take new actions together. With new learning and clear improvement, workers and supervisors feel connected to the larger business purpose of creating customer value. All of a sudden 5S becomes so much more than cleaning up, creating boards, putting up signs, painting floors, repairing equipment, and auditing appearance! By taking the time to go see, ask why, and show respect, the whole organization can engage in the work of creating more value and get aligned in the process.

Significantly improving your
operational performance.

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