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Would you have a fresh perspective on 5S to make it more motivating?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’m the manager of a plant that has changed hands (again). The new corporate team finds my 5S insufficient (again) and want me to make a 5S drive (again). Would you have a fresh perspective on 5S to make it more motivating?

5S, of course ... Well, 5S is never good enough and it can’t be bad to question your 5S approach now and again. The trick, of course, is to get every team member engaged in (1) eliminating what is not useful, (2) putting things back in their place after using them, (3) cleaning them before putting them away, (4) learning to do 1, 2, and 3 as part of every work routine and (5) making sure frontline management is interested and follows up.

This usually involves a lot of discipline and is not much fun. A good place to start is to explain (again) why 5S is important: not to have a “clean” plant in order to make corporate feel good, but to have an efficient plant where all work cycles can occur without mishaps because obstacles to the next operation in the cycle have been resolved (no stumbling over unnecessary items, no looking for tools, no grabbing faulty tools or parts, etc.). But explaining only gets you so far. The deeper question is: what do you have to change in your own management approach to make 5S sustainable?

So let’s take a step back. What conditions make team members feel engaged in any activity? From experience, three factors stand out:

  1. Tradition: when any site has a tradition of something, that harks back to at least the previous generation of employees, people tend to follow it because people are, well, people.
  2. Program: a steady program of improvement workshops that reinforces regularly the need for 5S might not go all the way to create an improvement culture, but certainly helps.
  3. Management: how committed and supportive to 5S are first line managers and their managers. What do you do a senior management to reinforce support for individual 5S initiatives?

The Real Question about 5S

People join companies and leave their boss. People join companies for pay and benefits, working conditions and work culture. They leave their bosses when bosses harass, are unfair, inconsistent, are always people’s back and so on. The same applies more generally to any activity: people will join in if they feel it’s part of the company culture and will opt out if their immediate boss (wittingly or not) discourages them.

Therefore, the real question is how to we train frontline supervisors to train team members to use 5S as a personal discipline to maintain standardized work in their own work areas. From the supervisor point of view, this means that 5S creates a steady flow of small changes to improve 5S conditions (as opposed to just the discipline of keeping the place “tidy”).

A few plant managers I know have attacked this by having a program of “ergonomics workshops” (which could also be called 5S workshops) in which the 5S questions are used to identify obstacles to smooth work. The program consists of one shift workshops once a week across the plant.

One lean promotion officer is typically dedicated to that job (the job involves preparing the workshop, running it and following up, at the rhythm of one a week, quite busy), only the supervisor and team members of the area participate in the workshop and the plant manager’s commitment is that they will show up at the end to the workshop to listen, hear suggestions and help where they can with minor purchases. In this way the plant manager demonstrates (1) her commitment to a 5S culture and (2) supports the supervisor in supporting 5S.

There are no magic bullets, and 5S goes deeper than many other lean tools as it requires both persistence, discipline and a real understanding of standardized work. Hopefully by working both at plant culture level and at immediate support level you will succeed in making 5S part of the plant’s traditions.