5S Lean Principles - Beyond the Clean Desk

5S Lean Thinking

Simplicity is power.

This is the premise behind the fusion of 5S and lean thinking.

"Lean 5S" is the Japanese lean production philosophy that has brought clarity and purpose to automotive assembly lines and production facilities. It can be misunderstood as a simple housekeeping or tidying up exercise, similar to a "clear desk policy" where items are randomly shoved in drawers or filing cabinets simply to present the impression of order.

In fact it is far more than that and the benefits can be applied to any office or workplace. Lean 5S begins with the philosophical idea that, in the words of medieval theologian William of Ockham, the simplest and cleanest solution is always the best. Complexity can be impressive but simplicity is both effective and beautiful. It therefore follows that form should follow function and everything should have its natural, logical and appropriate place.

Lean ideas describe every action or business task as a flow, with inputs, a transformation process, and outputs. The emphasis is on reaching a cycle time that meets the customer's demand and fulfils their expectations. The process should produce in time with required customer "pull" using lean principles such as "takt time". The Theory of Constraints (Goldratt, 1986) advises that production should be optimised or managed up to the level of a bottleneck. This avoids the production of wasteful inventory. Then the bottlenecks themselves should be "elevated". In other words, the binding constraints in the system should be removed.

A "5S lean" system of workplace organisation, as defined below, is an effective and natural way of supporting a lean, bottleneck-free process. The emphasis should be on a "visual factory" - simple, clear, visual signs and clean, free-flowing processes. Yamazumi boards are ideal to display the process in a clear visual format.

Lean 5s delivers numerous benefits. It is a vital cornerstone of any Six Sigma Yellow Belt training program. An orderly and well managed workplace is just the start. Even better, the concepts of lean 5s thinking can be applied outside the workplace to everything we do in our lives.

5S - The Five Key Steps

5S is one of the most effective lean tools available. It is deeply rooted in the philosophy of kaizen training, or "continuous improvement". The aim is not to dutifully fulfil a few tasks but to commit to constant and never ending improvement in every area of life. The key steps in classic 5s lean thinking are:

Sorting - The first step in the process. Remember the Pareto principle that 80% of the results derive from just 20% of the inputs. What really matters to your business process? Which are the magic ingredients that make a genuine difference?

Straightening - The phrase "a place for everything and everything its place" encapsulates the aim of this phase. Order and precision are vital to break the power of the "iron triangle" - the ineluctable trade-offs between quality, time and money. An orderly and timely approach can improve all three dimensions at once.

Shining - This is the phase that leads to the widespread, but inaccurate, linkage of 5s to a mere "clean desk policy". At the end of each day the workplace should be clean and free from mess or disorder. Human beings are creatures are routine, and soon the habit of ongoing daily cleaning of the workplace becomes an ingrained, self-starting and subconscious process.

Standardising - Think of your entire business process as a component, or a part - functioning like a cog in a wheel. It should be a discrete process that is easily interchangeable with other functions, where complete strangers could come in and pick up the process with ease. Documented process flowcharts are essential to ensure this interchangeability which is the hallmark of an efficient process.

Sustaining - We can all do the right thing for a day. The real dividing line between winners and losers is the ability to diligently stick to a process week after week, month after month and year after year. This is not an "easy" path, but discipline achieves greatness. At the same time the workplace and its organisation must be fluid and responsive, developing organically to meet changes in its operating environment. Yet the fundamental discipline of clarity, order and process flow remains the same.

5s does not lead to a static world, but merely sets the stage for kaizen or continuous improvement. Effective and ongoing process analysis is a key part of a 5S lean approach. There is no point "perfuming the pig", or expending time and energy on business processes that are poorly designed. It is often worth using process mapping to design processes from first principles. The famous Toyota technique of the "Five Whys" (asking yourself the question "why" five times in a row until the underlying root cause is revealed) should be applied rigorously and relentlessly to all business processes.

Indeed, it is as important to learn the key drivers of successful products or processes as the reasons for failure. Too often companies make decisions based on an inaccurate appreciation of what their real competitive advantage is. Few things are as dangerous as success, which often breeds complacency.

Constantly challenge the shape of your business and workplace. If you were starting from a blank slate (an "ideal" scenario), what would your business process look like? How would it work? Process analysis involves producing a current-state process map, a future-state process map, then considering how the divide between the two can be bridged. This ability to visualise the process both today and into the deep future is the heart of lean 5s thinking.

Lean 5S Thinking

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Comments 2 comments

Banjo 23 months ago

Hey, that's a clever way of thninikg about it.


Sue 22 months ago

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