High(Quality)-Five: How To 5S Your Operations (Part 1)

I don't think of myself as a neat freak.  But two years ago I had the unenviable task of telling hundreds of people at my company to clean their rooms – at least in a manner of speaking.

The "rooms” in question were the distribution centers where they worked.  And the cleaning was one of several tasks involved in making each of their facilities 5S-compliant.

For those of you who don't know, 5S is a Lean improvement tool.  Originally developed in Japan, it focuses on creating superior levels of workplace organization and maintenance via five methodical steps:  sort (seiri), set in order (seiton), shine (seiso), standardize (seiketsu) and sustain (shitsuke).   All of our Americas facilities were familiar with these steps thanks to the Lean training they'd received during the initial years of our continuous improvement program.  And many had used them on a limited scale.  But only one had implemented 5S throughout its operation.

That all began to change in fall 2011, when our company's top management asked me to spearhead an initiative that would get all of our Americas distribution centers fully 5S'd by the end of the following March.

The hectic months that followed weren't always fun.  Nor did they make me especially popular.  However in the long run, they were highly rewarding for our facilities, so much so that I'd like to highly recommend 5S to any organization or operation – and share the following hints to help you get started on a widespread initiative of your own.

Even if 5S compliance is compulsory, it's still a good idea to sell it.

Although there are a few hardy souls who actually enjoy cleaning and -already feel like there just aren't enough hours in the day.

Be sensitive to this when you're broaching the idea of a 5S program, because the typical 5S exercise is full of housekeeping tasks -- and how you introduce your initiative can make all the difference in the world.   In other words, provide your personnel with some compelling reasons why they should get behind the program that extend well beyond, "because we said so.”  Such messaging won't change the fact that you're asking your operations to do a 5S.  But it could make the idea of it considerably more palatable for everyone.

Don't create a race against the clock.

There's a fine line between challenging people and breathing down their necks.  Few operations have the luxury of dropping everything in order to get a 5S implementation done, and if they're in the middle of a particularly busy season or critical push, they may be even more pressed for time.

Avoid adding a sixth s (for stress) to your initiative by giving your operations a deadline that's definitive but doable, with plenty of extra time built in to accommodate everything from contingency to procrastination.

Just as important, be advisory rather than authoritarian when it comes to establishing a project calendar.  Aside from providing a general idea of how long each step should take let your operations determine how and when they actually get things done.  They'll appreciate the latitude, and you'll appreciate the improved results.

Keep it real.

While the typical 5S project isn't quite as lopsided as Edison's famous "1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” formula, the vast majority of its tasks are admittedly very hands-on.

That's why, in addition to providing operations with a 5S training course or manual that addresses the cerebral side of things, you should consider supplying a tangible starter kit that's full of all the practical items or supplies (such as a labelmaker, signage and marking tape) that they'll use most.  That way, no one at an operation has to spend extra time tracking those materials down when they're needed.

Along the same lines, ask your operations' top-ranking managers to make 5Sing their offices one of the first things they tackle.   It will provide personnel with a highly visible Exhibit A of what a good 5S effort truly looks like and send a powerful message that these managers are behind your 5S endeavor all the way.

Cut things down to size.

As a rule, the larger an operation is, the more likely its managers and personnel are to become overwhelmed or hit roadblocks during a 5S implementation.

To minimize this "deer in the headlights” effect, encourage people to break their operations up into numerous smaller project areas (there's no hard-and-fast rule about how many; but one of our most successful locations used 12) and appoint a team lead for each area who will be responsible for getting that section 5S'd.  Furthermore, allow these leads to choose their own team members and then let those teams use their discretion to break up the 5S tasks in their areas into even smaller increments.  This divide-and-conquer approach will not only prove useful when they're working the first four steps of the program, it will make things much more manageable when they reach the all-important sustain phase.

Stay tuned . . .

There's far more to share about how to make a 5S deployment a smooth and seamless experience for your company – so much that I'll be continuing this discussion in a subsequent story for this web site.   Until then, I encourage you to consider some potential areas where you might want to give this highly effective discipline a try.  You'll be glad you did.

Tips to Get Your Team on Board:
At a loss for how to "sell” your managers and employees on why 5S is such a good idea.  Here are just a few 5S-themed suggestions:

Satisfaction. 5S'd locations tend to be more enjoyable, user-friendly places to work After all, no one truly likes operating in a dirty, disorganized facility, store or office, even if they think they've gotten used to it.

Streamlined efforts. Much as it's easier for do-it-yourselfers to build or fix things around their homes if they have a well-organized workbench or toolbox, it makes sense that all of us will get things done more quickly and easily in facilities where everything has a designated spot. At the end of the day, these locations tend to be more user-friendly, productive and efficient operations.

Safety. As any safety expert can tell you, products, supplies or pieces of equipment that are out of place are a frequent cause of on-the-job accidents. A 5S'd location reduces this risk by making sure every item has – and is stored in – a well-defined place.

Sales. Companies that are looking for a new provider or vendor will often want a site tour before making a final decision. And what they observe and feel as they tour often has more impact on their final decision than anything you can say in a new business presentation. Having multiple 5S'd facilities will go a long way toward helping you make a more excellent first impression on potential customers.

Success. Last but certainly not least, it's important to note that 5S'd facilities tend to lend credibility to a company's claims about quality in a way no PowerPoint or new business proposal can touch – and that's important in this era when a continuous improvement program has become the kind of thing that can make or break a potential customer's final business decision.

Charlie Jacobs is director, service quality & process management for APL Logistics.

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