Increasing Productivity and Profits Through 5-S - Part 1

Implementing a 5-S program is a simple, yet effective way to improve workflow, quality and safety plant-wide.

By Tom Dossenbach

During the past several years, I have written often on the subject of continuous improvement and lean manufacturing. The reason for this is simple: Without having a dedicated focus at your company to root out waste and strive for excellence, it will be difficult, at best, to keep up with any local, let alone global, competitor.

I have recently made numerous references to 5-S in my columns and have had several e-mails asking me to explain it in more detail. I reviewed the Management Matters archives and came to the surprising realization that it has been almost six years since I have written about the subject. (How time flies!) Since this is such a basic and extremely effective tool in the change process, I plan to devote this and next month's columns on 5-S, to lay a foundation for those who do not yet understand this simple method to improve productivity.

This month, I will discuss what 5-S is and how it works. Next month, I will explain how an actual wood products factory implemented the process to illustrate practical ways to begin the process in your company.

What is 5-S?

I have often said that 5-S is a simple, inexpensive system to use on your factory or shop floor to reduce waste, improve quality and safety, assist in recruitment and retention of good employees, and add handsomely to your bottom line year after year. That said, who wouldn't want to take a serious run at adopting a system like this in their operation?

Stated another way, 5-S is a structured process designed to help keep the workplace organized. More specifically, in a woodworking plant, 5-S is designed to maintain the factory in such a state as to promote better productivity and higher quality while making everyone's job easier and safer. The best news about 5-S is that it is just as effective for small shops as it is for large factories and can yield the same type of positive results.

Development of the system is credited to Toyota. It has since been adopted in the full spectrum of manufacturing industries around the world. 5-S has five elements that each start with a word beginning with the letter "S," thus the name 5-S. To understand 5-S further, let's look at each of the five steps that make up this simple, but effective system that can form the starting point of a continuous improvement journey in your plant.

The five elements of 5-S are:

  • Sort - Get rid of everything unnecessary in the work place.
  • Straighten - Re-arrange what is left into an efficient work area.
  • Scrub - Clean the area and everything in it so it shines.
  • Standardize - Set rules and procedures so that everyone knows how to maintain the change.
  • Sustain - Keep the program going and never stop (or it will fail).

1-S = Sort

The first step in the 5-S process is to audit the entire workplace and determine which items are necessary and which are not, and then remove those that are unnecessary - in short, Sort, the first S.

The sorting process is actually easy, fun and enlightening. You begin by assembling a team of department workers and supervisors that can venture into a target area armed with a large stack of fluorescent-orange tags. The team objectively analyzes each and everything in the area and asks whether or not each is necessary. If the answer is "no," then that item is tagged. If there is any question about the legitimacy of a particular item, it should be tagged and moved to a sorting area with the obvious unnecessary items for further evaluation.

Later, a group with the knowledge and authority to make decisions of what to do with the removed items can also evaluate each of the questionable items. That second team, including the plant manager, supervisors and others, looks at every item that is tagged and makes a decision of what to do with each of them.

Tagged items with no intrinsic value or with no apparent future need should be disposed of - meaning sold for salvage, recycled or thrown away. Items not needed within the next week or so should also be tagged and then moved to a proper stock area or returned to the department that produced them. Likewise, excessive work in process should be returned to the department that produced it and stored until needed elsewhere.

All of this should be done with the full knowledge and understanding of every affected department manager and supervisor. This is an extremely important educational process that not only teaches one how to organize a workplace, but also identifies underlying problems in the factory that need attention, such as over production. I cannot over-emphasize the importance of this first step.

Some of the items that might be tagged in a woodworking plant include:

  • Over-run parts from a previous order.
  • An old, unused router.
  • Damaged or obsolete jigs and fixtures.
  • Old discarded cutting tools.
  • An unused or inaccessible workbench.
  • Excessive trash containers.

2-S = Straighten

Once the target area in the shop or factory is void of clutter and only items essential to the operation remain, the next step is to organize or straighten it into a more productive workspace. Thus, the second S refers to Straighten.

The objective of straightening is to organize what is left in the most logical and orderly way to facilitate good material handling and work flow through the target area. In most cases, adjacent areas, and for that matter overall productivity of the entire shop, must be taken into consideration either before they have undergone 5-S or after.

The woodworking machines that were spared the orange tags can often be grouped into work cells, further reducing space requirements and material handling. (See December 2005 Management Matters.)

As part of the straightening process, determine where the necessary staging areas for work in process should be and mark the floor so the location and space allocated is visually defined. This also is the time to mark aisles that should be kept clear of clutter in the future. Each time this process is undertaken, newly found floor space surfaces. It is important to determine how this space will be used or it will become a dumping ground for another department's surplus.

Some of the possible tasks of this step include:

  • Re-arranging machines into tight cells.
  • Making tool boards for each machine.
  • Labeling bins and racks for minimum inventory.
  • Painting aisles and parking zones on the floor.
  • Arranging proper storage and labeling of cutting tools.
  • Installing visual controls. (See January 2006 Management Matters.)

3-S = Scrub

The third step in the 5-S process is often referred to as Scrub or Shine. One glance at a woodworking factory's cleanliness will give the casual observer an immediate indication of the effectiveness of the plant's ability to produce quality products on time and at a profit. A messy, dirty plant usually manifests into a multitude of problems, including less than optimal work flow and poorly maintained machinery. Therefore, the next logical step in preparing a newly organized target work area is to clean it as has never been done before. This means the floor, walls and ceiling usually have to be cleaned and painted to transform a dull, dirty workplace into one that shines and represents a culture of pride and excellence.

In addition to the building, each machine must be cleaned so that even the slightest leak or cracked frame can easily be seen. Older machines should be painted so they look almost like new. Such machines are easier to perform preventive maintenance on and keep productivity up. (See Management Matters, TPM, February 2006.) This state of cleanliness will remain constant in a plant dedicated to 5-S.

One of the greatest bonus benefits of a plant that shines is that people will want to work there. In this day, it is hard enough to recruit and retain workers in a woodworking plant. A plant with a 5-S culture will attract and retain employees with a higher skill level and work ethic.

4-S = Standardize

In order to maintain the improvements that result from the efforts in the first three S's (Sort, Straighten and Scrub), written guidelines and rules must be enacted so that everyone knows how to use and manage these newly created workspaces. Rules should be clear and concise and posted in a manner that allows any employee to check that established procedures are indeed being followed. Otherwise, the tendency will be to slip back into the old habits. Thus, the fourth S is Standardize, which means to set written guidelines to maintain the progress that has been made.

For example, the amount of work in process that is allowed between operations should be defined, as well as where it is to be stored. To simply paint a spot on the floor without also posting an explanation of what the space is for invites forgetfulness and abuse. If rules for labeling supplies are not spelled out, drums of glue may find themselves in the wrong place again. Another important procedure that needs to be documented is the schedule and regiment of keeping the workplace and the machinery and equipment clean and shining.

5-S = Sustain

A 5-S program is not a soup-of-the-day effort that is here today and forgotten tomorrow. Like any tool of ccntinuous improvement and lean manufacturing, 5-S must be a never-ending process. Thus, the fifth S is Sustain, for obvious reasons. If there is no sustained effort in the first four steps above, there will be no benefit and therefore no reason to start this powerful manufacturing management system.

The road to success is paved with action - not good intentions. If you are the CEO of your company, you can make this system work through your leadership. If you are not the head honcho, you must get top management's endorsement of the benefits of 5-S and impress all concerned about the importance of sustaining these efforts.

My advice to clients is that the road to a better, more competitive future is through continuous improvement - and continuous means sustained effort.

Next month, we will visit Tetragon Cabinet Co. and begin implementing 5-S with Jason Crow and his team. Be sure to join us.

Tom Dossenbach is managing director of Dossenbach Associates LLC, a Sanford, NC-based international consulting and research firm. Contact him at (919) 775-5017 or at


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