Don’t Do 5S

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on May 4, 2010 · 23 comments

I know I’ll catch plenty of flak from the lean stalwarts out there. This will certainly go against conventional wisdom and common practice. But sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong.

I don’t believe companies should start their lean journey with 5S.

Many believe is should be done early. Many believe is it step #1, as this consultant argues.

5S as a practice has a life of it’s own. It has made it into Dilbert and is even promoted as a best practice on Lifehacker and described on eHow . I’ve even had companies ask me if lean is compatible with their 5S practice, not realizing how related to two are. There are two problems that I see with starting lean early.

1. If your first step in lean is one that involves mandates, it is harder to get long-term engagement.

5S is not done one person at a time. At the very least, you must blanket an area and multiple shifts. There can be more volunteerism. There can be no opting-out. It requires management to put their foot down on certain issues. However, that can go very well, or it can go poorly. It is easy to misapply the discipline and management aspect, leading to disengagement and negative results, as this blogger describes:

…telling them they put the stapler in the wrong drawer is going to be a bit grating on already frayed nerves.

That’s not going to be effective. Of course that’s on the wrong side of the normal behavior. But even if you get the forced behavior done well and not heavy-handed or misapplied, it is still forced. And that can be a negative for many people.

2. The benefits of 5S are often long-term and not direct

The biggest benefits of 5S are that it creates a stable environment to spot problems and deviations. This makes process control easier. It makes preventive problem solving stronger. However, many organizations aren’t even ready for such activities when they are just starting out with lean. Sure, 5S is nice. It cleans things up and makes finding things a little easier. But it doesn’t exactly move the performance needle.

What happens when your first engagement in a long journey doesn’t move the needle? We lose interest. It’s just that simple. And this is something I’ve seen happen in dozens of cases. The employee response is “I now understand lean: do a lot of work for no benefit.” Obviously that’s not the intent.

So make sure that using 5S, at any point in the journey, is solving actual problems that you currently have. Start with the problem statement, then pick the tool. Don’t start by picking a tool. That is a bad precedent for your lean journey.

For many companies 5S will help solve real problems. That’s great. Then 5S may be a great place to start – for you. But that is probably 30 percent of cases, not the 90 percent of companies now starting their lean journey with 5S.

3. 5S doesn’t force engagement of executives and senior managers

As I’ve written many times, there is a difference between leadership support and leadership engagement. A big difference. It is easy to say “yes, that sounds good, I approve.” It’s a lot harder to change your own behaviors, mindset, and skills. But lean requires changes at all levels.

5S is really easy to delegate. Leaders obviously have to get involved. But they don’t really need to get engaged. They need to expend some of their time, but not really change their behaviors.

Again, there is always time down the road to engage leaders. But why not start with something that does this right away. Why not get people out of their comfort zone that they understand it will require changes from them as well.

Overall, none of these flaws are fatal. All are recoverable. But I believe there are often better ways to get started. 5S is an easy answer. Lean is not an easy journey. Start your journey with purpose.

 
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