A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing – 5S & #Lean


I read this valid complaint from somebody on a LinkedIn group…. it led to a “facepalm” that I managed to catch on camera:

I interviewed with a medium sized company for a quality Manager position a while back. They were convinced that 5S is lean. They referred to 5S as the “five pillars” of lean. A lot of companies took a short seminar on one of the tools and are convinced that lean is a single tool, or a tool box. Most did not take the time bring in a consultant or hire a experienced Continuous Improvement person, and just did a low effort follow the fad approach.”

face palm

That seems more “L.A.M.E.” than Lean.

As Dr. Deming often said, “There's no substitute for knowledge” (or this variation in the video below):


It's sad that a company would think 5S = Lean. There's soooo much information about there, including a lot of free information on the web. I wish people would take the time to educate themselves. I know I'm preaching to the choir here… but what can we do other than to try correct folks when we see Lean As Mistakenly Explained?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    • Speaking of research, I ran across somebody doing a “research” survey for a PhD program (didn’t seem like a really reputable “university” listed, but that’s a different question).

      She was asking questions about “lean tools,” “six sigma tools,” etc. I responded that Lean is not “tools.” She wrote me asking me to elaborate. Well, rather than, say, writing a book to her, I asked what books she had already read in her research, before surveying people.

      She said, “None” and asked me what I recommended.


      Holy crap. I hope she gets her seemingly-worthless PhD or maybe I hope she doesn’t get it to have some credential to wave around.

      • In the future, you could refer such requests to me, in my role as a professor (emilianibob @ ccsu.edu). Or tell them that Better Thinking, Better Results and my REAL LEAN books, as well as my research papers, contain complete lists of citations covering the birth and evolution of Lean since the days of Frederick Taylor. That’ll keep them busy for a few years.

        • If her goal was “get a PhD” instead of the goal being “learning,” then I wouldn’t want to waste your time by passing her along.

          She never replied or thanked me for the book recommendations. I’m guessing she just wants the credential through the path of minimum effort. Or at least that’s what she demonstrated to me.

          • Mark: You are spot on. My second son’s fiance’ teaches Japanese (she is a native Japanese) at HARVARD!! She gets very frustrated (and sometimes angry) at her students because all they want is the “A” and most are not really interested in truly learning the Japanese language, which is not easy. I suspect this woman just wants the paper. She will be dangerous.

  1. The simplest definition for Lean that I’ve used for years that is simple with no jargon and doesn’t even mention tools is “Developing people to deliver value to customers in the least wasteful way.” The way I see it, all of the principles, fundamentals, and tools fall under this statement. All are subsets necessary to accomplish “developing people to deliver value to customers in the least wasteful way.”

    • Right. And, sadly, a lot of so-called “5S” activity doesn’t develop people or help deliver more value to customers, nor does it reduce waste.

      Of course, 5S *can* do all of these things. But, when it’s a tool clumsily applied (telling people to not hang sweaters on the back of their chairs) and somebody forces people to do stuff because they like being a “5S cop” then that’s L.A.M.E. and not Lean.

      I don’t remember any 5S or Lean training saying that it was about forcing people to do stuff.

      • Agreed. 5S is just 1 small drop in a very large bucket of understanding Lean as a methodology.

        Tangentially related to this… Another misconception I often hear is that Lean is about productivity and nothing else. This is another “one and done” perception. In general, people like to simplify a methodology in order to feel like they “get it,” and think, “this lean stuff is easy.” Many don’t have the patience to truly learn and apply it. I guess that’s one reason there are Lean zealots in the world – to chip away at these misperceptions.

        • Yes, the “Lean Sigma” crowd (starting with Mike George) has spread the B.S. that “lean is just about speed, six sigma is for quality.” Taiichi Ohno and others are rolling in their graves. But people who get “Lean Sigma” training accept this is correct. But it’s factually incorrect. TPS/Lean is about both flow and quality, they go hand in hand back to the days of the Toyota weaving loop that stopped automatically when a defect occurred. This improved quality AND productivity (one person could run a dozen machines instead of having to watch just one).

          I don’t like to use the term “zealot.” I think there’s a negative connotation there. I also don’t like it when people say things like they “believe in Lean” — I can state from evidence and proof (seen with my own eyes) that Lean is a good management system and improvement methodology. There’s no faith required.

          But now this post is about semantics. I’ve hi-jacked my own thread ;-)

  2. Way to Hijack your own thread Mark!!!
    I could spend hours on what I have seen and dealt with in the lean world of mine. I don’t have a problem with using tools to define the principles of lean. I find working with operators on the manufacturing floor they grasp the idea of tools and using multiple tools to complete a task. This has worked for me in getting them to understand it is not about using one piece but multiple pieces to get the improvement they strive for. as in your going to need two wrenchs and a screw driver to complete this task.

    On the other hand I have a hard time with calling something a tool then defining it the wrong way. Example of 5s, when used properly it is a great tool that helps with my TPM, problem solving, waste elimination and so much more. When applied correctly. If the thought process is “It means Sweep up when you have time!” “Everything better look like this picture when you’re done!”
    That gives those doing it daily the wrong mindset. Instead of finding problems during the initial 5s of an area they are just cleaning up and painting. Instead of using sustain as a daily,weekly or monthly inspection looking for issues, improvements, or any other item that will improve the process.

  3. I see this kind of stuff all the time.

    Recently had a request to consider doing an executive search for a Director of Continuous Improvement. In this case the position description, developed with the assistance of an outside (supposedly) Lean consultant, included a laundry list of the “required Lean Technologies” necessary to be considered for the position:
    1. Kaizen principles
    2. Lean skills
    3. J-I-T training
    4. Toyota Production System 5S
    5. Lean 5S
    6. Toyota Production System Sigma
    7. Lean Sigma
    And on and on and on…

    I determined that it was unlikely I’d be able to assist this organization in their quest to recruit the perfect Lean executive.

    Adam Zak

  4. Could it be that “They referred to 5S as the ‘five pillars’ of lean” because they read Hirano’s book: “5 Pillars of the Visual Workplace …Hiroyuki Hirano?”

  5. Great comment from LinkedIn:

    Jay Sykes: What an excellent opportunity for the candidate in the interview! Can you imagine how, with a little tact, you could have made a huge impact and landed the job by using the event as a teaching moment? I would have pulled out my pen and turned my resume over and begin a top level Lean Teaching review with the interviewer. Even if I didn’t land the job, I would have SHARED THE KNOWLEDGE, what’s more important than that? Opportunity missed

  6. Mark,
    When I think about the original post “a little knowledge…” it makes me think about some advice from Dr. Deming – what he might say:
    – The phenomenon you are observing could be another example of “rule 4 of the funnel” (chapter 9, the new economics)
    – Faulty understanding can come from advice from a hack (someone who thinks they have knowledge and believe they are helping). Beware of hacks. No-one will do you so much harm as a hack. The beginner is entitled to a master, but there are so few masters.
    – Information is not the same as knowledge.

    There is also the problem of “containers”. The problem with containers (like TQM, six-sigma, lean, etc) is that they “contain”. We create these containers and then guard and protect them. This happened often a 4-day seminars with Dr. Deming. Someone in the Q&A portion would use the term “TQM” and Deming would jump right on that, “what is that?” he would ask. And we would not let go until he made it clear that this term (which did not come from him) was not the “transformation of management” that he was talking about.

    The other problem I see is the belief that it is “easier for someone to act their way into a new way of thinking rather than think their way into a new way of acting”. Easier, maybe, but what if there is no one there (a master) who can explain the “why” behind the “what”? No wonder people conclude that 5S = lean. They may have learned some tools, and were told (perhaps by a hack) that 5S is the “5 pillars of lean”.

    How could they know they are mistaken? Many of the results we see come from people doing their best. We are ruined by best efforts.


    • Mike – thanks for your comment, as always.

      My dad sent me a link to an MP3 recording of last Sunday’s sermon at their Orthodox church in Livonia, MI (ah how far technology has come since I last attended there 17 year ago and they didn’t have a website).

      But the priest had a compelling sermon about “do better, try harder” not being enough. First we need to know WHAT to do (this is classic Deming, eh?).

      The priest says we need to do more than just hit the gas if we’re stuck in the mud. We can’t just “do better, try harder” and especially if we’re not on the right path.

      He talks about “being smarter, not working harder” (and being on the right path). Organizations, like people, can’t just have a vague undefined sense of “We need to do better.” This happens a lot with Lean, eh?

      “Do better, try harder… but AT WHAT?”

      Wise words. To act our way to a new way of thinking, we have be doing more than trying random tools, right?


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