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Lean 5S: How to Implement and Perpetuate Lean Manufacturing

Yves Lebrasseur
Floor management : Lean 5S

Have you ever heard comments like: “a consultant came to implement Lean or continuous improvements, but three months later the benefits had all but disappeared”? Rest assured, you are not alone.

In my work as a consultant as well as in my corporate life, I have seen this scenario over and over again. It is a major problem that needs to be addressed in order for organizations to evolve.

I will discuss solutions shortly, but first I’d like to describe why history repeats itself.

The case of Lean 5S implementation

Take the example of the 5S methodology. The 5S system, based on the Toyota Production System, has been implemented for decades in companies around the world. It is a Lean tool that relies on visual management to organize the workspace in order to improve productivity and worker engagement.

What is 5S? 5S refers to five Japanese words that summarize a lean manufacturing methodology and mindset necessary for maintaining best practices: Seiri (sort), Seiton (set in order), Seiso (shine), Seiketsu (standardize), Shitsuke (sustain).

Developed by Hiroyuki Hirano, these five pillars to create a visual workplace are the most fundamental aspects of continuous improvement initiatives

Lean 5S Methodology

There are many benefits to the 5S methodology:

  • Productivity gains through quick and guaranteed access to tools—note that this refers to both physical and virtual tools, e.g., computer files
  • Improved employee satisfaction through an ergonomic and organized workspace, with shadow boards for examples
  • Reduction of workplace accidents by using visual communication such as floor markings

Although the benefits are significant and much appreciated, they rarely last long.

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Why the benefits of 5S programs don't stand the test of time

In practice, companies often hire consultants to implement a 5S program. Their role is to:

  • Train teams
  • Coordinate workshops to organize the space according to the 5S principles
  • Conduct on-site activities to achieve the change

The classic approach looks something like this: a pilot area is selected in the plant, and then the change process takes place over about two weeks. It consists in reorganizing the space and determining new organizational practices. This part of the process usually works very well.

It is only once the consultants have left the premises that the problems begin. I’ve seen it as an in-house Lean Manufacturing specialist, I’ve seen it as a consultant; it’s always the same old story: organizations are able to implement 5S, and other lean systems, but not to sustain them. However, the principle of that lean approach is very clear on this: Shitsuke means discipline!

Being disciplined implies that a manager is accountable for maintaining and improving the practices and principles implemented through 5S. In reality, however, front-line managers underestimate this responsibility and therefore neglect it.

Result - teams fall back into their old habits:

  • The signs marking work tools are no longer used, and the tools become scattered around.
  • The markings on the floor are no longer respected.
  • Workers go back to experiencing the same frustrations about the state of their workspace.

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Shitsuke: rigor is everything in Lean Manufacturing

A number of factors can explain this behavioral problem, but I have observed several trends:

  • Managers are often interrupted by emergencies (last-minute orders, machine breakage, or replacement).
  • The manager's job description focuses too much on administrative tasks that prevent the manager from fulfilling his duties in the field.
  • Managers don’t always have the best management skills. As a result, they find it difficult to effectively pilot all the variables for which they are responsible.
  • Executives do not follow up with managers.

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The solution to achieve continuous improvement

Employee discipline and maintaining best practices depend largely on on-site management. No project will last if the manager’s role is misunderstood, especially if they value the resolution of emergencies and administrative work, or even manual work, at the expense of maintaining the improvement practices that have been implemented.

Managers are the cornerstone of organizational performance, and actions can be taken to improve the situation:

  • Choose the right managers
  • Review roles and responsibilities
  • Set up regular and fixed frequency site tours, with clear objectives defined with KPIs that include follow-up on 5S
  • Ensure management involvement and follow-up so that managers and their teams are truly held accountable for the success of 5S

Try taking a different approach by focusing on management behaviors, and you’ll get much better results than in your previous attempts.

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Yves Lebrasseur

Yves Lebrasseur

Senior Expert - Technical Processes Lecturer at the Engineering Faculty of the University of Sherbrooke, Yves mentors tomorrow's leaders as a supervisor of engineering management Master's degree projects and guides numerous organizations in optimizing their operations through Lean and Six Sigma processes.