5 Es-sential – Part II

I was thinking perhaps I may have offended some sociologists in my last blog by contrasting the “science” of 5S with the “sociology” of 5S.   Meaning no disrespect, I was intending only that when we observe the before and after conditions of 5S we can see a concrete change from chaos to order: hard science. The things we sort and move are inanimate objects of change.   But when we attempt to understand the motives and actions of people (both as individuals and groups), what I consider the sociology behind that change, the picture can get pretty murky.  These are, or should be, the agents of change.

I described one sociological condition in my last blog:  acceptance of disorder.   This isn’t a condition limited to a few aberrants.  It’s nearly everywhere.    Another unfortunately normal condition in many organizations is the Tayloristic legacy view of workers as “human machines.”    This sociologic problem treats employees as objects rather than agents of change.   Here’s an example.   A friend of mine who spent most of his career in the employ of a consumer products giant tells this story: 

 “On Thursday a memo was circulated to office employees that we should remove personal items from our cubicles as part of a company-wide 5S project.   The memo went on to say that for those who could not comply, their offices would be 5S’d for them over the weekend with unneeded items stored in banker’s boxes for removal.”

Imagine the engagement this memo must have generated among employees.  : )

While the story above may be extreme, even managers that try to engage employees anticipate, and frequently become frustrated by, apparent disinterest form employees.   A responder to my last blog expressed that frustration.  This situation arises from yet another sociological norm:  Managers make change and workers follow change.  In most organizations, there is little precedent for workers participating in decision-making; in fact, that kind of participation needed to make 5S or any other lean technique work is not normal at the beginning of a continuous improvement process. 

Because 5S is often the first real workplace effort in a lean implementation it’s especially vulnerable to tacit learning deficits.   Managers behave as they always have and so do employees.   Without heeding the sociological challenges to  implementation, a 5S effort layered over conventional behaviors will produce a static, one-time improvement in which employees have just done what they were told to do.  Tacit learning:  SOS.    These efforts ultimately slide backwards.

The reality is that neither the 5S process nor its outcomes are the issues.   The challenge is with management to create an environment that generates interest and involvement, one that recognizes the perceived risk and vulnerability that workers feel when they are suddenly asked to behave in a way that has previously been discouraged.   I’ve listed seven do’s and one don’t that will help to overcome this challenge:  

  1. Treat employees as if they are customers.  (They are.)  Suppose you are trying to sell them 5S.   (You are.)
  2. Do a little market research.  What are the benefits to them as well the organization?  What are their objections?  How can you answer these?   Who are likely to be early adopters? 
  3. Select a small pilot effort that shows a high probability of success.   Prime the pump with an early success before deploying more broadly. 
  4. Train everyone in and involved with the pilot area. Let them understand the why of 5S as well as the how.   Address the benefits and try to answer objections –without being defensive.  No my-way-or-the-highway talk. 
  5. Provide time, resources and encouragement to make things happen.   Be there when they need you.
  6. Be patient.  Learning is not an “event.”  A small improvement truly executed by employees provides credibility and a ‘testimonial’ for your product.  In fact, it becomes their product.
  7.  Promote the success and launch another small effort. Use testimonials, and engage an ‘expert’ from the first pilot to help with the second. 
  8. Don’t step in to 5S for someone else.   For managers like the gentleman who responded to my last blog, there is an irresistible urge to take over when early participation is low.  Time spent preparing for success (steps 1-7) will help to avoid this temptation.  Beware:   When you do, they don’t.   

So many organizations start off on the wrong foot with 5S that GBMP decided to make a short video to deal with the sociology of 5S.   It’s more of a How-Not-To lesson to help you avoid common pitfalls.  Here’s a short clip of that DVD: 5S, 5 Challenges.  Enjoy.


2 thoughts on “5 Es-sential – Part II

  1. Gary H. Lucas

    I guess I came across a little strong in my reply to the last blog. I have in fact done my home work, for the past seven years! A little background. For the past two years someone else in management has tried to change how our shop worked. They moved out to the shop to watch closely what everyone was doing. Workers were assigned separate tasks in different areas of the shop to cut down on idle chit chat. Work, instructions, and even drawings were parceled out in tiny increments, so you had to come back to the manager frequently for instructions. New time sheets were created, breaking down what you are doing into 19 categories. The orders were to get building, don’t waste time identifying if you actually have the materials needed. The shop computer that everyone was supposedly authorized to use to order or track materials was essentially off limits unless you asked the manager to move out of the way and worked under their direct view.

    I started with training everyone in how to use the computer system. I encouraged them to actually get experience with it by not doing it for them, instead supporting their efforts to learn even if it actually slowed us down. I made sure that everyone rotated through the task, and I don’t sit in front of the computer unless I’m solving someone’s problem or training them. I have held short meetings each morning about what I would like to change, and encouraged them to think about what they would change, and tell me why. Every time I’ve gotten approval from upper management to change something I’ve let them know the status, and we’ve actually DONE IT as quickly as possible. We are all working as one team right now to get projects through the shop. I don’t directly assign them work. I explain constantly that I believe that people who like what they are doing, do the best work. They should work at dividing the work up by their own skill sets as much as possible. Some are slow accurate workers. Others are fireballs with a noticeable error rate. I believe that working together we get faster rates and lower errors. I spend one to two hours in the shop each morning, and return to my engineering position for the rest of the day. I’m ten miles away, but my cell phone is on 24/7 and I do answer.

    And yes, I am a bit impatient. I expect to be on medical leave to have surgery in late February. It is huge question mark of whether I can get essentially a new culture in place that will not completely fall apart while I am gone. I have to tell you though, I am thoroughly enjoying the challenge!

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