As companies decide on which path to take with their lean journeys, they often get stuck when just getting started. There are numerous opinions out there coming from lean practitioners like myself, trainers, educators, and lean organizations. Lean is a business strategy. Metrics weigh heavy as one of the reasons to implement various lean tools, so does customer satisfaction, and culture change. Embarking on a lean journey is a bold move and you have to be ready to make major changes to how the business is operated.

My advice to you is just start! One of the best lean implementation tools — 5S and the visual workplace —can bring measureable improvements to a work area, but also to cultural change. The benefits of the change include:

  1. Drastically cleaning up the work area.
  2. Reducing floor space use.
  3. Increasing productivity.
  4. Challenging current practices.
  5. Reducing the cost of replacing lost or broken items.

Drastically cleaning up the work area

In a truly 5S compliant factory, “everything has a home.” Everything! If it is deemed necessary for the work area, then it needs a visible home location. All unnecessary junk and items should be removed completely. What you have left is the bare minimum in a very organized fashion. 

Reducing floor space use

Part of your 5S initiatives should be the challenging of horizontal surfaces like tables, carts, work benches, racks, and shelves. These types of surfaces can get out of control when not regulated.
Items will simply accumulate over time, hiding necessary tools and cluttering the area. Identifying what surfaces are truly needed and then right-sizing the area is best. Righ- sizing is the practice of identifying the minimal allowable space to work and store items. 

Increasing productivity

Again, when done properly, 5S can increase productivity. One of the main goals of lean is to reduce waste in the process of a manufactured good and create a production process that is focused on value added work. When operators or other employees are spending time sifting through unorganized piles of tools, paperwork, supplies, and material, nothing is getting done for the customer. The product is sitting idle as they search for things. This decreases the line’s productivity, adds to total product cycle time, creates delays for the customers, and adds cost. 

Challenging current practices

No lean implementation is void of resistance and push back. 5S is no different. People are personally attached to things they don’t own, or items that they “feel” can not be given up. In a manufacturing facility, people hold on to everything, and they develop a bond with excess space, tools, supplies, and even dysfunction. One of the key elements of 5S is the development and implementation of visual shadow boards, where tools are placed vertically. Shadows areas are placed around tools to show home locations, allowing tools become easily retrieved. When a tool is in use or possibly missing, workers can get a quick visual confirmation. Regardless of the benefits, many people struggle to let go of their tool boxes and cabinets, especially in a maintenance department. 5S is great for that first pass at change.

Reducing the cost of replacing lost or broken items

5S can help in reducing the cost of replacing work related items. Taking your factory or shop to the extreme level of visibility creates an environment of minimal needs. Tools simply don’t get lost or broken in piles. Supplies have specific locations on shelves and cabinets and their inventory levels are monitored. General use items are not cluttered and unaccounted for, so the need replace the “perceived” lost items is decreased. 

I hope after reading this I have created some fire under you to get moving. First, you must learn the 5S philosophy and train those who will be involved. You can take it to the business strategy level as well. I can vouch for the scores of 5S projects I have led, participated, or simply witnessed that it is a truly remarkable improvement tool. Do not underestimate its power to not only ignite a successful lean journey, but transform your business into competitive player in your industry. Go get them!


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