5S is Boring

Rick Bohan
5S can be boring.
5S can be boring. But the results are worth the time and trouble.

In a recent (excellent) article on the challenges of sustaining 5S, James Womack (author of “The Machine That Changed the World”) tells us:

“I frequently hear 5S advocated as some sort of “clean up, fix up” campaign, an “easy way to get started with lean”, raise morale, impress investors, impress customers, and, in general, create the appearance of a “world-class” company (whatever a “world class” company may be).”

I generally start lean initiatives with workplace organization for some of these very reasons.  I don’t put too much weight on the “impress investors, impress customers” part and I think that it does more than “create the appearance of a world-class company” (when properly implemented, of course) but I agree that it’s a straightforward way to get starts and does raise engagement.  And I generally agree with the spirit of the statement…that too many companies get started on 5S without really understanding what it takes to make it successful. As a result, they don’t follow through to get the core benefits of workplace organization and visual factory because…they get bored.

Here’s the thing…after the initial “excitement” of clearing out some junk and obsolete equipment, 5S becomes something of a long slog.  The work of getting every cabinet, every workbench and toolbench, every work station straightened, then making sure that everything in those cabinets and on those benches has a marked and labeled home address is boring.

And it requires some investment to make it successful but not “fun” or “exciting” investments.  No shiny new equipment or tooling.  Just some new shadow boards perhaps, maybe a new shelf or two.  Maybe just some new brooms and dustpans.  It doesn’t get any more prosaic than that, right?

Finally, keeping everything in order, that is, sustaining all the gains you’ve made…well that’s no darned fun at all.  All that daily sweeping and picking up nuts and bolts off the floor is just plain dull.  Never mind asking your supervisors and leads to do demeaning tasks like checking those shadow boards once or twice a shift to make sure that they’re actually being used.

Yes, there’s no way around it…5S is just boring.  And I’m sorry to say it but there’s not much way to make it very exciting.  But you can keep your “boring 5S initiative” from becoming your “failing 5S initiative”.

First, recognize that the work necessary to implement workplace organization and visual factory isn’t going to be exciting or fun.  But it’s necessary for optimal operations just as it’s necessary that shortstop and second base practice the double-play dozens of times before the season starts.

Second, make sure someone at or near the top of the hierarchy sees the 5S implementation as a high priority on his or her set of goals.  That leader will need to do a good bit of following up to make sure all that’s needed to get done actually does get done.  That same leader will need to do a good bit more followup to make sure it’s sustained.  If the plant manager  and the VP of Manufacturing and the COO and the President are never addressing (read: checking) 5S performance, then, eventually, neither will anyone else in the company.

Third, include performance on implementing and sustaining 5S as part of the performance appraisal of managers, supervisors, and lead techs.  Bosses give feedback on what they want their reports to pay attention to.  If bosses aren’t giving feedback on 5S performance, their reports will assume that it’s not really that important.  Not Important + Boring = Ignored.

So, assume that implementing 5S just isn’t going to be that exciting…and take the appropriate steps to make it successful anyway.


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