The Principle-Clean It Up, Make It Visual

When Americans were making pilgrimages to Japanese plants in the 1970s and ’80s, the first reaction was invariably “The factories were so clean you could eat off of the floor.” For the Japanese this was simply a matter of pride. Why would you want to live in a pigpen? But their efforts go beyond making the factory look clean and orderly. In Japan there are “5S programs” that comprise a series of activities for eliminating wastes that contribute to errors, defects, and injuries in the workplace. Here are the five S’s (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shitsuke, translated into English):

  1. Sort—Sort through items and keep only what is needed while disposing of what is not.
  2. Straighten (orderliness)—“A place for everything and everything in its place.”
  3. Shine (cleanliness)— The cleaning process often acts as a form of inspection that exposes abnormal and pre-failure conditions that could hurt quality or cause machine failure.
  4. Standardize (create rules)—Develop systems and procedures to maintain and monitor the first three S’s.
  5. Sustain (self-discipline)—Maintaining a stabilized workplace is an ongoing process of continuous improvement.

In mass production, without the five S’s, many wastes accumulate over the years, covering up problems, and becoming an accepted dysfunctional way of doing business. The five S’s together create a continuous process for improving the work environment. Start by sorting through what is in the office or shop to separate what is needed every day to perform value-added work from what is seldom or never used. Mark the rarely used items with red tags and move them outside of the work area. Then create permanent locations for each part or tool in the order of how much it is needed to support the operator as if he or she were a surgeon. The operator should be able to immediately reach for each commonly used part or tool. Then shine, making sure everything stays clean every day. Standardize, as described in the previous article, to maintain the first three pillars. Sustain keeps the benefits of 5S working by making a habit of properly maintaining the correct procedures. Sustain is a team-oriented continuous improvement technique that managers play a critical role in implementing to support 5S. The 5S programs that are the best sustained, in my experience, are audited regularly, e.g., monthly, by managers, who use a standard audit form and often give symbolic rewards for the best team. One plant awarded the best team with a golden broom, which was rotated when another team got better. In advanced lean plants, work teams audit their own areas weekly or even daily and then managers inspect randomly.

Unfortunately, some companies have confused 5S with lean production. More than one company I have visited has related some version of the following story. “A few years back, management decided to try this lean stuff. They paid a million dollars to a training company who taught us 5S and did a lot of 5S workshops. The place got cleaned up and looked better than it ever had since I started working here.

But we did not save any money, quality did not get better, and eventually management stopped the program. We ended up right back where we started.”

The Toyota Way is not about using 5S to neatly organize and label materials, tools, and waste to maintain a clean and shiny environment. Visual control of a well-planned lean system is different from making a mass-production operation neat and shiny. Lean systems use 5S to support a smooth flow to takt time. 5S is also a tool to help make problems visible and, if used in a sophisticated way, can be part of the process of visual control of a well-planned lean system (Hirano, 1995).