Using 5S to Improve Flow

February 1, 2010
By Darren Dolcemascolo

The 5S system of workplace organization is often used as a foundation to "more advanced" lean improvements, but, if properly applied, 5S itself does more than just make the workplace look better. In English, many translate the 5S's (originally in Japanese) as Sort, Set-in-Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. In a nutshell, implementing 5S means:

1. Sort: Eliminating what is not needed for everyday operations usually by red-tagging.

2. Set-in-Order: Moving all items that are needed to support everyday operations (supplies, equipment, tools, materials, paperwork, electronic information, etc.) to their best possible location and labeling/color-coding/identifying them for ease-of-use.

3. Shine: Doing an initial major cleanup and instituting regular (usually daily plus some weekly) clean-ups during which employees return all items to where they are set-in-order.

4. Standardize: Systematizing the above activities through schedules and regular audits.

5. Sustain (better translated "discipline"): Institutionalizing the discipline to maintain and continuously improve the system through awareness, rewards/recognition, and other tools.

Many people still think of 5S as a "spring cleaning" during which everyone throws out what they don't need and simply organizes what they do need. This, however, only scratches the surface of what 5S can really accomplish for an organization. While it is true that implementing 5S will make the workplace look much better and, if properly implemented, will begin to change the attitudes of employees toward keeping the workplace organized; it is also true that 5S can improve the flow of material and information throughout the operation. Let's review a few examples of the application and benefits of 5S in four types of operations:

1. Customer Service: Many times, we have worked with customer service organizations to implement 5S. By organizing paperwork as well as electronic information in a standardized fashion, customer service operations can reduce errors and improve the flow of orders being processed. For example, if each customer service person's desk has a specific location for incoming orders and those orders have a visual indication of when the orders arrive and how many orders are there, the operation can re-distribute work between customer service associates and improve the overall flow. Also, if one person is out of the office, another associate can go to that person's desk and retrieve needed information for a customer. A similar approach to organizing operations like Accounts Payable, Accounts Receivable, and other transaction-based operations will yield similar benefits.

2. Assembly of Product: This may be the most commonly cited example. If all tools, materials, and supplies needed to assemble a complete product or portion of a product at a workstation are kept at the point-of-use, the workflow can be standardized and will be more consistent, resulting in the ability for an operation to run at the pace of customer demand (takt time). Wasted time and motion involved in searching for tools or materials would be eliminated, and the likelihood of errors would be reduced.

3. Warehouse: By organizing a distribution operation including materials as well as paperwork and information, the time required to process an order for shipment can be greatly reduced. By organizing the materials by part number (placing like items together), the time to pick a typical order can be better standardized and will be faster and more consistent than having materials organized randomly by an ERP warehousing function. By organizing paperwork or electronic information/forms needed for shipment, the time to process an order would be reduced.

4. Machine Changeover: By organizing all of the tools and supplies needed for changeover and developing a "Changeover Cart," the time to retrieve all needed items for a setup can be drastically reduced. This often results in 30% - 50% reductions in changeover time. For a job-shop, this can improve response times to customer and can increase capacity. For an operation that makes standard product, lot sizes can be reduced resulting in freed up inventory and cash.

Based on my experience, I can think of many dozens of specific client examples for each of these categories. While every company is different, in many respects, they are the same. If you are currently implementing or thinking of implementing 5S, think bigger than just achieving a neater looking workplace. Think about eliminating waste and improving flow.

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