Initiating Lean with 5S?


    By Jean Cunningham:

    Mark's note: Here is the first post from Jean Cunningham. I'm looking forward to her future contributions to the blog. For more about Jean and her lean experience, click here. She brings a unique perspective to the Lean Blog, having been a CFO and having led lean efforts from the executive level. Please welcome Jean to the Lean Blog!


    It would be impossible to find a description of Lean without a focus on 5S. After all, who has not heard, “Without standards there can be no improvement.”

    But in my experience with Lean, our company did not learn about 5S from our consultants until after more than a year into our Lean Journey. By that time we had our entire product portfolio organized by 7 product lines (or value streams) with product being manufactured in one piece flow to the demand rate of the customer.

    So it continues to surprise me when I visit companies who initiate their Lean efforts with 5S. My first experience with this focus on 5S as a standalone activity was with a company that had decided that everyone in the company had to be “doing Lean” by holding 5S events. The result was office people cleaning up and creating taped off desk areas and labeling of files. As important as it is to use the 5S techniques, the goal is to actually eliminate activities that do not support customer value. It was a pretty hard stretch for people to see the connection between taping off desks, and cleaning up areas and the creation of customer value. Because the connection was so tenuous, the focus on Lean seemed trivial to people.

    Recently, I discussed this dilemma with a CEO who was verbally committed to Lean. He had hired a consultant that started their company off with 5S events. I asked him what he thought about this approach now that they committed to this direction. He said that initially he was very concerned that the results would not flow to the customer; however, his opinion was mollified when he saw that the teams, while cleaning up, and creating standards in 5S events also took action to change some of the processes that were causing some of the wastes. (He continued to be eager to get to the “real Lean” activities.)

    This was a good perspective for me to hear, as a critic of starting with 5S. Because it was true that more people could get involved more quickly with 5S (than focusing entirely in manufacturing to create one piece flow cellular product lines.) And if empowered to make changes to the processes, as they implemented 5S, they could launch the power of the collective genius of more people.

    So have I converted by view on initiating Lean with 5S? Well, no. I still believe that focusing on processes, eliminating waste, increasing flow, and reducing batch sizes using cross functional teams of empowered employees is best. I view 5S as an excellent support process, but find 5S too inwardly focused if used as standalone activities. But I do know acknowledge that, 5S, when combined with process improvements, can be a very powerful combination.

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    1. Jean, you make great points. 5S alone doesn’t save anybody’s company. I have used 5S, as you described, as an early tool to help people in a production area learn it’s “OK” to come with changes and to get the lean ball rolling. In work cultures where employees were never listened to, asking them where items and supplies should go goes a long way towards re-engaging them sometimes. They key is to involve employees in the 5S process, don’t just come put tape around all of their stuff!

    2. I agree Jean. I’ve chastised many companies who start with 5S “just because the book said so” or some other lame reason. It’s a valuable tool. If you can’t get material out the door because your place is such a disaster, it’s a great tool. But it’s not some all-important, can’t-proceed -without-it concept. If it takes you 6 months to really get traction throughout a large facility and people are wondering what the results are going to be, maybe start in some other way. Lean is not a 3-ring binder.


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