5S and Lean

5S and Lean by Walter McIntyre

The 5S tools are associated with Lean thinking. The objective of Lean thinking is to provide a business with long-term profitability by developing a more effective workplace, which is accomplished by eliminating waste in the work environment. The result is a safer workplace, improved product quality, and lower costs for both the business and its customers.

Lean thinking may result in a reduction in work force, but that is not its purpose. In fact, the application of lean thinking for the purpose of reducing the work force is not lean thinking at all. Since some companies have done this, lean thinking has been given a bad reputation and has made waste reduction efforts more difficult.

The 5S approach involves five activities in the workplace: scrapping, sorting, scrubbing, standardizing, and sustaining. Depending upon which book you read, there may be different names for each S, but the intent is the same.

Scrapping means to throw away unneeded material. A trashy work environment, in addition to being unsafe, tends to create a casual attitude toward quality. There should be a strategy for knowing what to keep and what to throw away. Take junk mail for example. It should only be handled once. Look at it, decide to use it or throw it away, and then take the appropriate action. When junk mail is handled more than once, it piles up on your desk making normal productive work more difficult. The same thing happens in a shop with trash and old parts, and in a store with boxes and packing material.

Sorting is the process of placing everything where it belongs. Imagine a toolbox where the drill bits are scattered throughout. If a bit is needed, it will take some time to find the bit. This adds time and cost to work. Now imagine a toolbox with the drill bits organized in a labeled drawer and separated logically by size. The time necessary to find the needed bit and get the job done is shortened, and the cost of the work is reduced.

Scrubbing the work environment involves cleaning the work area. A clean work area is safer than a dirty one and is conducive to higher quality work. It is related to discarding scrap but goes further by including the cleaning up of what is left. Consider a machine shop where cutting oil is left on the floor. This becomes a slipping hazard and indicates sloppiness. If you were inspecting machine shops to see which one to hire, what would you think about the shop with an oil mess on the floor?

Another example of the importance of scrubbing is preventative maintenance. In a manufacturing facility, for example, the machining equipment can be painted white and wiped down each shift with white cloths. It becomes easy to see any unusual oil leaks or dirt. This allows the factory workers to diagnose machine problems before breakdowns occur. The result is reduced cost.

Standardization is about making sure that important elements of a process are performed consistently and in the safest and best possible way. Lack of consistency will cause a process to generate defects and compromise safety. The standardization of work practices increases predictability. Predictability, in turn, allows the process owners and operators to prevent problems before they affect the customer.

Sustain means to maintain the gains. The 5-S philosophy will only work when all levels of the business are engaged. ¬†Instead of a program, it becomes part of the culture. ¬†Lean thinking is natural and automatic, instead of an add on in our business’s paradigm.