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Six Steps to 5S Success

If you think there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get kids to clean their rooms, imagine telling hundreds of industrial workers they have to undertake their own variation of the same thing.

This article originally appeared in IMPO's April 2015 print issue.

If you think there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to get kids to clean their rooms, imagine telling hundreds of industrial workers they have to undertake their own variation of the same thing. 

APL Logistics’ Charlie Jacobs was presented with this dubious honor when his company decided to apply 5S practices to all of its U.S. warehouses at once and selected him to drive the evolution. 5S encompasses the stages, sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain and can often be quite difficult to permanently implement.

“Professionally speaking, the season that followed was one of the most challenging I’ve ever had,” said Jacobs.  “However, it was also one of the most rewarding, because it resulted in more than 30 operations that are stronger, neater and better-organized – and because of that I would willingly do it all again in a heartbeat.”

From this experience, Jacobs was able to garner a new understanding of 5S and some best practices in regards to implementation. “With the right resources, personnel and level of commitment in place, it’s possible for any organization to apply 5S equally well, and every reason why it should try,” he said. 

Step 1: The Right Timing

Timing is everything when it comes to implementing a successful 5S approach. For example, although Jacobs concedes that the three-month window his organization had to complete the first three S’s inspired more than one gray hair, it also provided a firm but workable implementation deadline that was essential.

“If the finish line is too distant, most locations will either forget or procrastinate,” Jacob explains.  “By contrast, if the schedule’s too aggressive, you could be setting some up for failure.” To find your golden mean, look into how long 5S implementations have taken operations similar to yours.  Weigh those timelines against the kinds of day-to-day responsibilities your operations have, because locations seldom have the luxury of dropping everything during their 5S push. Then factor in ample extra time to account for everything from contingency to varying work styles.

Step 2: No-Nonsense Practicality

Like other Lean principles, 5S has a highly cerebral side, which is why it’s critical to provide an operation pursuing a 5S system with a detailed training course or manual. It is also equally important to note that most 5S tasks are very hands-on. Therefore it is imperative to help equip your operations accordingly.     

“The last thing we wanted was to have people hit roadblocks for want of a particular supply,” said Jacobs.  “So we provided each facility with a starter kit that included the items such as a label-maker and marking tape that we knew they’d use most.” 

“We also asked each operation’s managers to 5S their own workspaces first. It gave all of the personnel working at those operations a chance to see the concept in action – and enabled managers to demonstrate that they were willing to walk the talk,” adds Jacobs.              

Step 3: A Formal Support Effort

When Neil Sedaka penned the words, “Breaking up is hard to do,” he summed up the reluctance many professionals often feel during the sorting step. Although an organization may not be able to pry every superfluous piece of equipment or supply from every operation, it can substantially ease the parting blow with proactive support-the-sort techniques. 

“We had a point person responsible for helping facilities trade, donate or dispose of their unused items,” Jacobs said, citing one example. Other suggestions include finding an area charity that’s willing to pick up items, or setting up a portal where operations can exchange information about supplies they’re willing to pass along as they get rid of them.  

Step 4: A Healthy Serving of Spaghetti (Charts)            

By the time personnel reach the setting in order phase, they’re often tempted to simply put items back where they’ve always been.  Unfortunately this produces mixed results at best and needs to be avoided.

“It’s counterproductive to think that a longtime organizational scheme is the best of all possible solutions – especially if there’s been clutter or chaos,” describes Jacobs. When implementing a 5S approach it is therefore crucial to always insist that operations examine different configurations first.  One suggestion is to create a spaghetti chart that captures motion; as it often yields impressive insights into how to best move forward with the most efficient process.

Step 5: A Willingness to Make Exceptions

Just as sorting is often the most painful 5S phase for employees, shining is frequently the most financially vexing, because in addition to cleaning, it often involves making necessary, but occasionally costly cosmetic improvements.

“It’s all well and good to insist that operations repaint, re-mark signage or replace threadbare carpet,” said Jacobs. “But if the money’s not there to make the improvements, it’s simply not there.”

The message here is clear, “Be prepared to grant leeway if operations need more time to get fully shined – until the next scheduled renovation or budget period, for example,” said Jacobs.  “And encourage them to shine what they can in the interim.  Even something as simple as 409-ing the walls or renting a steam-cleaner can make a huge visual impact.”

In a similar vein, while it’s noble to aim for immediate standardization during the systemize phase, it’s also helpful to recognize that unless all of your operations are identical, total conformity may not be possible – at least for now.

“Accept the fact that even the best-planned of standardizations is going to have its deviations or delays,” advised Jacobs.  “Then decide which things you are or aren’t willing to compromise on.” 

Step 6: Using All Five S’s

No matter how well-cleaned and organized your company’s newly 5S’d operations are, they will quickly revert to a state of disarray if the final S gets short-changed.  

“In many ways, figuring out how to stay 5S’d is as important as all of the other four steps put together – and as difficult,” Jacobs warns. 

While working on the first four steps, have personnel and employees share ideas for sustaining the positive effects being achieved, whether it a quarterly deep-cleaning day or weekly put-things-back time, all ideas are important to consider during this period of change. In addition, become familiar with other organization’s successful practices – such as regular internal or external audits – that have successfully 5S’d.  Then combine them into a sustainability plan that’s a realistic fit for your organization. And most important of all, work that plan.         

“If companies do this, their operations will continue to look and feel as impressive as the day they passed their initial audits,” Jacobs said.