Increasing Productivity and Profits Through 5-S: Part 2 - Getting Started

The Sort and Straighten steps from the 5-S program clear the way for a safer, more efficient workflow area throughout the plant.

By Tom Dossenbach

Last month, I explained that 5-S is a simple, inexpensive, but profound tool of lean manufacturing to keep the workplace organized and void of anything unnecessary in the manufacturing process. If you did not read it, I suggest you do so before reading Part 2 - or, at least, do so immediately afterwards. I have made mention of 5-S in various articles over the past few months and several readers asked for an explanation - thus, this series.

This month, we visit the Tetragon Cabinet Co. to conduct a small 5-S blitz in a couple of areas in the plant. We will cover all five steps to workplace management (this month and next) in order to show you how it can be done in your factory or shop. In order for this to be a meaningful learning experience, I ask you to not read ahead. As you go through the plant with me, you will be asked to stop reading, go to a specific photograph on these pages, follow instructions and make notes. Then, you will return to the text and read further. You will be asked to stop three times while reading this month's column.

The Trip to Tetragon

You and I arrive at Tetragon and meet with the plant manager, Scott, to discuss and begin implementing 5-S. We review with Scott the five steps we plan to initiate to show how he can apply this powerful tool in his small plant. Tetragon's management and supervisors already are sold on the merits of Lean Manufacturing and are ready for us to give them outsiders' perspectives on organizing the plant. We proceed to the machine and cabinet assembly areas to get Scott and his team started.


We grab a bundle of bright, fluorescent-orange tags and head out into the machine department with Scott and his machine supervisor to conduct the first step of the 5-S process - Sort. We look for anything in the work area that does not belong or contribute to the value-added processing of Tetragon. We explain to Scott that we will tag these items to sort them out from those that are essential. It looks like the floor has been cleaned for our benefit, but my eye is drawn to a target area around the moulder - so, that is our destination. We stop for a closer look.

Photo 1: The moulder area

[STOP READING NOW and look at Photo 1 to the left. Take a close look and identify everything you can find in the photograph that looks like it does not belong. List all items that you feel are unnecessary or out of place, and tag them in your mind with bright orange tags. After you have finished your list, continue reading.]

Hopefully, you have recognized the clutter and excessive work-in-process around the moulder. In our tour with Scott, you tag two separate piles of parts on top of pallet loads of WIP (center-left in photo 1). It is apparent that these must be overruns or scrap. In either case, they do not belong there. Underneath the pile on the left is a pallet with a mixture of different-sized parts that do not look like kits for cabinets, but more like an accumulation of overruns and scrap similar to the junk on top. Tag it and we will check later. Just in front of those piles is a jacket. Yep, it needs tagging as well. In the center background, there are more piles on the floor and on top of a pallet of material. More tags. Just to the left of those piles is a floor fan, right in the middle of the workplace. It is in the way.

Photo 2: The clamp carrier area

Behind us is a worse area that catches our attention and we take a closer look. [STOP READING NOW, and go to Photo 2 to the right. You know the rest of the drill. Continue reading when your list is done.]

We ask Scott what is going on here? He is embarrassed and grabs a handful of bright orange tags and places one on each of the pallets of parts. "These should have been sorted and re-processed into panels long ago," he exclaims. He adds that the glue reels in the background are empty and he has plenty of labor to be working on them. You tag the air line that you tripped on, hanging in the foreground, and the electrical cord that is draped over the feeder as a safety hazard. You then ask Scott to examine what is stacked against the wall.

Upon inspection, we find a barrel of glue for the clamp carrier. Scott tags it because it should not be behind the clamp - trapped, as if in a jail cell. He tags the boxes on top of the barrel, an old cabinet, a stack of cabinet doors, a box of sandpaper and a pile of junk in front of the fire extinguisher. He runs out of tags and asks you for more.

I ask Scott about the machine and its location, since it does not look like it has been used in quite awhile. He says it was seldom used and actually should be moved to the location where drawer boxes are built. Yep, you've got it - affix a bright orange tag.

Photo 3: The assembly area
Photo 4: The assembly area

After another hour and more tags, we go to the assembly area for a quick look. The first assembly bench has a cabinet for tools and supplies behind it - and is it ever a dandy. [STOP READING NOW, and go to Photos 3 and 4 to the left. We will continue when you complete your list.]

Yes, the metal cabinet and the area around it are a mess with shelves full of trash, cutters, old rags and assorted junk. The drawers are no better, so you place a tag on the cabinet itself. There is an old section of air line on top of the cabinet, mixed in with more junk. More tags. Alan, the supervisor, admits that the area around the cabinet is worse. For the first time, he sees a roll of sandpaper, old air lines, an electrical extension cord, broom, shovel and trash can - all cluttering the work area at this assembly station. He places a handful of tags. Several times during the tagging exercise, it is not clear to us if certain items should be tagged. We do it anyway, knowing that we will look closer during the upcoming group meeting.

When we stand back and look at both areas, those items that do not belong stand out like sore thumbs. The bright orange tags identify them for what they are - sources of clutter, symptoms of waste and the resulting extra costs. You exclaim, "This is why the first S (Sort) includes this critical discovery exercise. It's a real eye-opener."

We huddle with the group and discuss and document what must be done with each item. We agree that all of them must be moved to their proper places if their presence is not necessary to the value-added process in the target area. We find that one questionable stack of parts actually is ready to run on the moulder, so we remove the tag. The others will be moved to a proper place or removed altogether. For example, the excessive materials in the moulder and clamp carrier areas will be moved, immediately sorted, and then reclaimed to fill current and immediate-future demand - or be discarded.

When this step is completed, we see a lot of unused floor space, and with it, many opportunities to make improvements in the target area.


You ask, "What's next?" I reply, "The next step in the 5-S process is to organize the target areas into a more compact space that is conducive to good workflow and high productivity. Thus, the second S is for Straighten."

It will take some thought and planning to organize each target area, so we decide to discuss the areas with the employees and come up with a plan.

Next month in Part 3, we will continue our blitz at Tetragon and cover this second step, along with the remaining three steps of 5-S workplace management. [Please remember what I stated at the beginning, and go back to the March installment of this column and read up on 5-S to better understand your trip to Tetragon today and next month.]

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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