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What is 5S in Six Sigma?

For Six Sigma, 5S can be invaluable for reducing waste. High-performing processes and workplaces are always characterized by organization and cleanliness. The whole point is to reduce or keep out waste, and the method that helps you with that is called 5S.

The process behind 5S began decades ago in Japan as a means of immediately engaging frontline process teams in the daily work of improvement. Just this practice alone brought immediate incremental improvement to processes. Regularly revisiting the 5S method maintained the improvements over the long term.

The Ss are English equivalents of five Japanese words that capture the sequence and actions of the method. The actions build on each other, so you need to conduct them in sequence. Otherwise, you get a reconfigured process that misses its optimal condition.

In Six Sigma vernacular, you can use 5S as an adjective (“How did your 5S event go?”) or as a verb (“See you later; I’m going to go 5S my cubicle.”) The five sequential elements of 5S are

  1. Sort.

    The first step is to go through all equipment and materials and determine what must be retained at the worksite. Only essential tools, aids, equipment, and so on are allowed to remain. When you find something that doesn’t belong, return it to the correct person or department or simply get rid of it. Put a red tag on these items and get proper authorization before scrapping, selling, or recycling them.

  2. Straighten.

    After Step 1, all you have left at the worksite are essentials. You must now give each of these a single, proper place. You’ve heard the saying, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” That’s exactly what we’re talking about. Be creative in establishing places for things so that returning an item to where it belongs is natural or easy.

    It’s like creating a “shadow board” for tools, with a silhouette for each tool that makes knowing where to put the tool back a cinch. In that way, anyone working in the area can find what they need and know where to put it when they’re done so that it’s ready for its next use. And if an essential tool is absent, that fact is immediately apparent.

  3. Scrub.

    To help maintain the order you’ve created, thoroughly clean everything remaining at the worksite. The time and money spent on polishing or repainting, if needed, will be returned many-fold in more-positive employee attitudes and greater productivity, an increased ability to detect equipment problems, fewer contamination and defects, and improved safety.

  4. Standardize.

    Where possible, make worksites consistent. All workstations for a particular job should be identical so that someone from another worksite can immediately step in and productively run the process if necessary. Think of the value business travel hotels add by standardizing the layout, the furniture, and other amenities across all their locations. That fosters a familiar environment for their guests and increases their guests’ productivity (not to mention the hotel staff’s).

  5. Sustain.

    This final step means to put a schedule and system in place for maintaining and refreshing the 5S-ed worksite. The actions of 5S are everyone’s job, not just the janitor’s or cleaning crew’s.

Here are some important points to consider about 5S:

  • 5S is intensely visual. It involves labels, colors, shadow boards, taped-off placement lines, and everything else that provides instant identification for what belongs where or in what order. Making 5S visual makes it simple and effective.

  • The work of 5S is inherently local. What a process needs differs from task to task and from area to area. So keep the boundaries of a 5S effort divided into these small regions and then repeat the 5S steps in other areas if you want to expand the effort.

  • 5S is just as important for office areas as it is for production or manufacturing. Office workers benefit greatly when shared copy and office supply areas are 5S-ed. Conference rooms that are 5S-ed add value to each successive meeting held in them.

  • Management plays a key role in 5S. Not only can managers participate in 5S events, but they can also regularly audit or review areas of 5S performance. Both of these actions add important credibility and momentum.

5S sometimes runs counter to an individual’s work style, but that excuse should never be a deterrent from doing the right thing. A surgeon may have sloppy drawers at home, but in the operating room, he’s required to have the discipline to join in the improvement and standardization.

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