Five Es-sential

It seems like the term “5S” has assumed the same magnetism as “Free” in the Lean market. There are hundreds of suppliers (a shameless plug for our friends at the 5S Store) on the web today offering tapes, stencils, label-makers, checklists, on-site training and how-to videos.  Some even advertise “Free 5S”   (about 36,000 Google entries); it’s big business today.   It’s nice to have these resources available to us; makes me wonder how we ever got by without all this stuff.  

So why, with all these new resources do organizations continue to struggle with workplace organization?  I think it’s because we focus primarily on the science of 5S rather than the sociology.  As I offered in an earlier blog (Random Access Memories), TPS success is 10% tools and 90% people, and particularly in the case of 5S there is a tendency to glam onto the attractive benefit of “a place for everything, and everything in its place,” without trying to understand why such obviously good advice is rarely taken.   It’s not a new concept; the quote is attributed to Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861.   Yet most organizations are historically cluttered and chaotic.  It’s normal.  Most of us just turn a blind eye to the chaos, and work around it.  View the short clip below (inspired by Gwen Galsworth’s excellent book, Visual Workplace, 1997) to see what I mean, and then read on. 

 click image to view video clip

The first drawer would do Mrs. Beeton proud, but the second would have her rolling over in her grave.  Both drawers exhibit a form of organization, but one of them is immeasurably better than the other.  Yet both are “normal” for most of us – say 99% of us.  (The other 1% has found a better way to store utensils – and the rest of us usually accuse those people of perverse behavior!)  This is the sociological problem – the people part.   As a society we are accustomed to clutter and disorganization, and tend to let the condition become atrocious before we do something about it.  Look around you.  Is your workplace more like the flatware drawer or the utensil drawer?   How much time per day do you personally spend searching for information or material or tools?   Typical answers to this question are “twenty minutes to an hour.”  

It’s commonplace to hear of 5S that “we can’t sustain.”  But consider the example above.  Both the good and not-so-good conditions are sustained – side-by-side.   We are very practiced with both.  In the flatware drawer we see “a place for everything and everything in its place.”  Yet what we typically cannot see is the process by which it was created and how it is sustained.   Why do we have such difficulty implementing a seemingly straightforward practice?    I’ve asserted that the reasons are not technical, but sociological, so my answer (in an upcoming blog) will address the question from that point of view. 

In the meantime, what do you think? 


3 thoughts on “Five Es-sential

  1. Gary H. Lucas

    I just took a new position managing our fab shop. It is truly amazing how much mess people can work in, and how resistant they can be to cleaning it up. In stage one I’ve advised everyone that we will be cleaning up starting with those areas that have reached the angle of repose. I’ve suggested that if they work in an area like that they should start cleaning now. I’ve also advised that if they can’t decide what to toss, then it becomes my call. This will of course have no effect. In stage two I will come in on my own time and toss what I think should be tossed. That’s a simple decision. If it was here seven years ago when I started and hasn’t moved then it is time to go. This will of course get everyone POed, and there will be a mad rush to toss stuff that might even be valuable just to show me. At that point outsiders will notice and comment on the change, and then it gets much easier.

  2. Bruce Hamilton

    Thanks for your reply. You are describing the “sociological” challenge I referred to in my blog, one that is unfortunately commonplace. I’ll publish a follow-up blog later today (which I had intended anyway) to respond to your comments.


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