Using 5-Step Workplace Management for Continuous Improvement






If there was a simple inexpensive system to use on your factory floor to reduce waste, improve quality and safety, assist in recruiting and retaining good employees, and add handsomely to the bottom line year after year, you would want to use it, wouldn't you?

Well, there is such a system. It is an uncomplicated but effective tool known as Continuous Improvement that came out of Japan several years ago and is widely used by successful manufacturers in this country today. Continuous improvement is not just another fad. Instead, it relies so heavily on common sense that when people find out about it, it makes them feel silly that they don't already use it.

It is a solid program, commonly referred to as 5S housekeeping. The term "5S" was derived because the five steps sound as though they begin with an "S" in the Japanese language. Additional names for the five steps have been used in other languages, but I prefer to use names that begin with "S" in English.

The main point is that all five steps are essential and together form a powerful tool for managing a shop floor -- or any other department in an organization. The 5S program is a simple way to get continuous improvement off to a blistering start in any woodworking plant.

The five steps are: Sort, Straighten, Scrub, Standardize and Sustain. Each is a process leading to the next step and each step requires explanation -- lest anyone think it is only a housekeeping project.

Step One: Sort

The first step in the 5S process is to go to the workplace and determine which of the items there are necessary and which are not -- and then to get rid of or remove the unnecessary items

Anyone who thinks they do not have enough room in their department, will love this step. I have never seen a plant yet that could not gain a lot of usable space by going through this exercise.

One of the easiest ways to begin the process is to get a big box of florescent-orange tags and venture out into a department with the mission being to objectively tag everything that is not necessary to getting a job done. If there is any question about the legitimacy of an item, it should be tagged and the situation resolved in the second part of this step. There may also be a dispute among workers as to which items are unnecessary. In such cases, a decision should be made to settle the matter later. However, "when in doubt, tag it out."

After tagging is completed, the plant manager, department managers and other supervisors should visit the area dotted with the tags and analyze the findings. There is no point to this exercise if no one is going to learn from it. Each person needs to ask, "Why are these tags here and what can we do to avoid them from appearing again?" Then, set about doing it.

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 three weeks should also have been tagged and should be moved to storage or returned to the department that had produced them too soon. Likewise, excessive work in process should be returned to the department that produced it.

All of this should be done with the full understanding and knowledge of the department managers and supervisors. When this is done, there will be some areas of the plant floor that no one has seen in years. Examples of what someone might find include:


  • An old, unused single-spindle shaper,
  • Over-run parts from previous orders,
  • Damaged or obsolete jigs & fixtures,
  • Old, discarded saw blades,
  • An inaccessible workbench, and
  • An excessive number of trash barrels.

Everything found, as well as corrective and preventive actions taken, should be documented and used in step four.

Step Two: Straighten

Now that the shop area or workplace is uncluttered, what should be done with it? Straighten it up and get it organized, of course. The necessary items need to be arranged logically in the workplace. If there is a group of machines that can make up a cell, they should be arranged in a cell configuration. Supplies that are used daily need to be convenient to the users, but not placed so that they hinder workflow or compromise safety.

All efforts to "sort" will be wasted if something is not done with the new-found space. If nothing is done, the space will mysteriously disappear as others find it to be a solution to their problems. Examples of organizing an uncluttered machine department include:


  • Rearranging machines in tight cells,
  • Painting new aisles,
  • Making tool boards at each machine,
  • Labeling bins & racks for inventory,
  • Painting parking zones on floors, and
  • Designating a place for everything and keeping everything in its place.

Step Three: Scrub

For employers who want their employees to love to work for them and would like to raise productivity and quality to all-time highs, the third step in the 5S management system cannot be overlooked. It is a total and thorough cleaning of the workplace.

After removing the clutter, clean the overhead areas, walls, floors and machines. This involves more than just blowing them off with an air hose. It means cleaning them to the point where the smallest crack in a cast frame or a small oil leak can be easily seen. By doing this, plant managers can lay the foundation for an effective preventive maintenance program that will pay for itself many times over with reduced downtime. Other "scrub" items might include removing old wiring and dust collection pipe, painting machines after cleaning, removing dust and cobwebs from ceilings and walls and painting walls and ceilings bright colors.

Most woodworking professionals can walk into a plant and tell in a matter of minutes whether the plant they are in is producing quality products with some degree of efficiency simply by judging the clutter and cleanliness of the operation. Unfortunately, a lot of those same professionals cannot do the same in their own plants, simply because they can't see the trees for the forest.

Step Four: Standardize

This 5S program is not a one-shot effort -- it is ongoing. There should be a regular schedule for completing the first three steps. There should also be a way to systematically check to see if the procedures are being followed. For example, the amount of work in process allowed between operations can get out of hand quickly if there is no documentation and education as to goals and objectives. Other ways to achieve standardization include making rules for inventory, setting up preventive maintenance schedules,establishing cleaning procedures, formalizing department schedules and determining how often to repeat processes.

Step Five: Sustain

How often does management begin a "new project" or "new system" only to realize seven months later that no one is using it anymore? Somehow, everything fell through the cracks, making the effort all but worthless because it was not sustained. Yes, there could be a limited, one-time continuous improvement blitz through a plant -- implementing only the first three steps. There would be some immediate positive results for a while, but before long, everything would be right back to where it was before.

The 5S system requires the backing and dedication of top management in creating and sustaining a culture of continuous improvement. It has to become a habit with the president and plant manager -- as well as the cutting room supervisor.

One possibility is to consider having competitions between departments to see which is the best at implementing a 5S program. Results could be charted and posted for all to see.

The Benefits of 5S

The benefits of 5S are in direct proportion to the effort put into implementing and sustaining the system. A partial list includes:


  • A neater, cleaner place to work,
  • Lower employee turnover,
  • Fewer accidents,
  • Less scrap and re-work,
  • Better quality awareness,
  • Lower direct and indirect labor costs,
  • Lower materials cost,
  • Less money tied up in work in process,
  • More usable floor space,
  • Shorter lead times, and
  • Higher on-time delivery rates.

I challenge readers to institute a 5S blitz in one of their departments next week. Form a team and go through this exercise in one week. Once all five steps are implemented in one department, a company will never be the same -- I guarantee it.


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