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5S is more than just spring cleaning

5S stands for Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke. And, by the way, despite being called 5S many people say there’s a 6th – Safety.

Well, I’m glad to have cleared that up!

Perhaps I had better explain… You have probably deduced that 5S is another Japanese-inspired approach to quality improvement; in this case it’s all about organising the workplace to be clean, tidy, efficient and safe, whether this be on the factory floor or in the office or elsewhere. This doesn’t just have financial and safety benefits but can significantly improve the sense of ownership and morale of the workforce.

The 5 S’s are Japanese words that break the process into 5 stages. It’s difficult to exactly match the Japanese stages to five English words that also start with S so, as with Kaizen and Poka-yoke, many English-speakers stay with the Japanese words. However, if you feel a desperate need to Westernise it you could try Seiri = Sort, Seiton = Set in Order (Simplify, Straighten), Seiso = Sweep (Shine), Seiketsu = Standardise, Shitsuke = Sustain… and Safety (which is self-evident).

The concept of 5S is to arrange items or activities in such a way that the flow of work is simpler, easier and more efficient. For example, workstations, desks or benches are made clean and tidy and everything needed to do the work is made easy to find, tools are placed at the point where they are used and in a way that makes them instantly available (e.g. via shadow boards or tool holders), layout of the work is arranged to avoid staff having to bend or move excessively to get at materials or tools, problems become easier to see, work processes are standardised to reduce wasted effort or wasted materials, and so on.

As a result of the tidier working space and easier to use layout, safety is improved; the sixth S is really a consequence of the first five.

This is how the five stages work:

1. Seiri tidiness; eliminate unnecessary items

Go through the entire workplace and remove everything that isn’t wanted, used and essential to the work being done. Keep only the bare minimum and avoid ‘Just In Case’ syndrome.

2. Seiton – orderliness, find a place for everything

Set in Order; put everything in a specific, assigned place so it can be retrieved quickly and easily. Make the workflow smooth and efficient. Arrange storage where it’s required and use tool holders, shadow boards, labelling and other methods to identify where tools or other items should be kept easily to hand (and to show if they are missing).

3. Seiso – shine or clean regularly

Arrange for systematic, regular cleaning of the work area and keep it clean when you are using it; this applies to the office (how about having a clean desk policy, for instance?) just as much as to the shop floor.

4. Seiketsu – standardise the way that work is done

This stage is all about making the previous three stages stick. Standardise what you have done and how you have done it, make sure that you document the first three stages and their outcomes, and make sure everyone knows what is expected of them.

5. Shitsuke – maintain the improvements you have made

Make 5S part of your working life – “the way we do things around here”. People need to be committed to maintaining and improving the benefits achieved. The natural tendency is to let the workplace slide back into untidiness and disorganisation; staff need to overcome that tendency by regularly re-visiting the earlier stages and by sticking to the agreed processes and standards.

And now the bonus ball:

6. Safety – eliminate hazards and risks

Purists say that adding ‘Safety’ is unnecessary as, if implemented properly, the other 5S stages will result in a safe work environment. But change can bring risk and reorganising the workplace, especially one with hazardous tools or materials, even more so. It’s no bad thing to make sure that Safety is emphasised and gets serious attention (and it keeps the pedants busy pointing out that you have six Ss in your five S process!).

So yes, there is an element of spring cleaning in 5S – I do like to be topical! – but it is far more than that. There’s some Lean Thinking in 5S too and, conversely, 5S can be a useful part of Lean Transformation; regular readers of this blog will have noticed that many quality initiatives knit together quite nicely like this at the concept level.

5S may not reach the intellectual high-ground of initiatives such as Six Sigma or TQM but it’s much quicker and cheaper to implement and can really transform the working environment; it can be a quick and easy win, and I’m all for that.

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