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Achieving More Efficient Operations With the 5S and 5 Whys Methodologies

5S – It Isn’t Just for Housekeeping
For those who’ve studied and trained in Lean methodologies, the 5S method should also be a familiar concept. It began in Japan as an approach to organize work areas to be more efficient and effective. As more and more warehousing and manufacturing facilities have adopted this approach over the years, it’s become quite common to see 5S programs in place. The most obvious signs are often the outlines of brooms painted on the walls and circles painted on the floors to indicate the desired locations for trash ba5-Step Supply Chain Methodologyrrels.

While these are certainly positive steps, many companies aren’t leveraging the power of 5S as fully as they could. In fact, when floor associates are quizzed about the nature of their 5S program, they frequently suggest that it’s a housekeeping system used to keep the workfloor clean. But a 5S program can—and should—be used for far more than just housekeeping. So, how does a company use 5S effectively? 

The Elements of 5S  
5S has its origins in Lean Processes and focuses on the following actions:  

  1. Sort
  2. Set in Order
  3. Shine 
  4. Standardize
  5. Sustain

On the surface that seems simple enough, and may sound an awful lot like housekeeping to some. So, what is it that others are missing? Many companies seem to get through steps 1 through 3 relatively easily; adequately sorting through their equipment and processes, finding and marking appropriate places for everything, and keeping the areas clean. The biggest potential for improvement is typically in steps 4 and 5—Standardize and Sustain.

“Standardize” goes beyond the tools and looks at how to optimize the way processes and equipment are used. For example, in one 5S facility with material handling equipment (MHE), the fasteners on the equipment were marked by the vendor and maintenance with a colored dot that was specific to a piece of equipment (Standardize). That way, when a fastener was discovered on the floor, the operator could work with maintenance to determine which piece of equipment it had come from, prompting an immediate maintenance review of the equipment. A loose bolt on a warehouse floor typically doesn’t just “appear,” and it’s best to determine why it’s there before equipment fails and causes injury or damage. 

Executing “Standardize” effectively makes this process much more efficient. If multiple sites are involved, it’s also advisable to standardize guidelines from a centralized perspective to keep all sites in sync. When possible, incorporate poka-yoke concepts, which are designed to prevent inadvertent errors, to reduce future incidents. Nothing is too small or too large; even using a common font and size for labeling across all facilities has a positive impact. 

Asking the 5 Whys
The Standardize step should always be teamed with the “5 Whys” approach of Lean defect resolution. At its heart, this approach tells us to ask “Why?” five times when trying to resolve a question or issueSupply Chain Inventory Optimization. The goal is to get closer to the root cause of the problem, which is likely not obvious at first glance. For example, when reviewing the tools that were selected in the initial “Sort” phase, dig into the real reasons why each tool is needed, and how they can be standardized across operations. Many are likely to discover that there is still room to standardize tools and processes, making it much easier to develop and conduct efficient maintenance procedures. 

What Can Be Learned from a Piece of Wood on the Floor
The 5 Whys approach can set the 5S effort apart from a simple housekeeping system. For example, when a chunk of wood is found on the floor of the workspace, what happens? How this is handled on the work floor often reveals volumes about the understanding and buy-in of the teams in support of 5S Lean efforts. 

Typically, there are one of three actions taken by associates when they spot the wood on the floor:

  1. Ignore it and walk away—or possibly kick it out of the way.
  2. Pick it up and throw it in the nearest trash bin.
  3. Stop and try to figure out why there is a chunk of wood on the floor. 

Below are some generalizations based on observations at various facilities:

  1. When the chunk of wood is ignored, it is often an indication of an unkempt workplace.  If the workspace is not maintained, other areas and equipment are frequently not being adequately maintained either. The operators will often lack pride and ownership in their jobs. Usually this workplace will have a higher than normal error rate, higher turn-over, equipment failures occurring more than they “should,” and potentially a higher incident/injury rate. 
  2. When the wood is picked up and thrown away, the facility is generally neater and brighter. Managers monitor and understand error rates, and operators take pride in their work and want to do a respectable job. Operators also maintain equipment and keep incidents and injuries under control. 
  3. When team members work to figure out where the wood originated, the workplace is usually very tidy and well organized with consistent high-performance metrics.  Performing an investigation over a chunk of wood may seem like a fool’s errand, but in a Lean environment, the cost of the investigation can be recouped by production and safety improvements. 

Possible scenario of using the 5 Whys to evaluate a chunk of wood on the warehouse floor. 

  • Why was this here?  It broke off a pallet.Supply Chain Inventory Optimization
  • Why did it break off a pallet?  An operator speared the wood stringer when picking up the pallet.
  • Why did the operator spear the stringer?  The forks are set wide on the lift, and this was a smaller Euro pallet.
  • Why was a Euro pallet received if the facility is set for larger pallets?  The product was supplied by a new import vendor, which uses Euro pallets instead of North American pallets. The operator didn’t realize he was handling a Euro pallet and didn’t reset his forks. 
  • Why did the facility handle a Euro pallet incorrectly?  This will usually lead to a broad ranging inquiry that starts to hit on processes, such as vendor standards, receiving and inbound inspection rules, forklift operator training, and a review of the warehouse/facility to make sure it is configured to support Euro pallets effectively with a minimum of wasted space on standard racks if Euro pallets will now be handled. 

The path of questioning can take different turns, but the bottom line is that a root cause is found and addressed. Typically, digging deeper with each “Why,” will ultimately unveil potentially deeper process issues. The 5 Whys approach is not complicated, but it is a habit that should be developed. 

Prompting Culture Change with 5S
The bottom line is that 5S should become part of a company’s culture until it is second nature for everyone, from the floor operators to the management team. Like the adage on life, becoming 5S is not a destination, it is a journey. Without constant vigilance, a company can lose focus on their 5S program until it devolves into having only housekeeping applications. This is where the “Sustain” part becomes difficult.  An organization can benefit from an outside “coach” like 4SIGHT to audit their progress and help them see the forest AND the trees. 

No matter whether you are beginning your 5S journey, thinking about one, or have been on it for years, your company likely can benefit from a neutral industry expert like 4SIGHT to guide your teams to make sure they are at the top of their game.

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