5S: The Unsung Hero of Operational and Safety Excellence

Leadership teams that clearly link the target condition of a sustainable 5S process into the overall business strategy for operational excellence will make quantifiable financial gains.

At Milliken & Company plants, 5S has become a foundational pillar within the company’s operating system. However, the key to success for a change of process like 5S is a deep regard and respect for the people involved. When this value has substance among the leadership and flows through the organization, the following “Absolutes of 5S Implementation” will greatly improve your chances of sustaining the process.

By now, most people in industry can describe the technical aspects of 5S. However, a vast majority of implementations end in a vicious DO cycle without ever getting it to “stick” because they never make it past the first three Ss—Sorting, Straightening, and Shining. Without the last 2 Ss, companies lose the benefit of the process. For instance, Milliken identified opportunities for improvements in safety and waste elimination while the organization completed activities surrounding Standardization and Sustainment. Working through 5S increased morale, led to higher associate engagement, and was a trust-building activity that solidified the credibility of those leading the change. In the end, everyone at Milliken plants had responsibility for the process and was able to acknowledge its success.

So how do you go about either starting or correcting your 5S journey? Here are six ways to ensure success:

1. Position 5S as Continuous Improvement to assign it the proper value among associates. The continuous improvement approach occurs when associates are valued, engaged, and empowered and 5S is a foundation for so many other process improvements. If associates aren’t truly involved in 5S as a culture change on a daily recurring basis, the company most likely will fail on other fronts, as well.

2. Start with standards on which the entire group agrees. People will strive to achieve their own expectations. Include time and direction during the 5S Kaizen for associates to document their new standard and determine what is needed to maintain it.

3. Provide education and communications that offer a clear “WIIFM” message delivered from leadership. Direct and honest communication is necessary to address people’s uncertainty or negative impressions of 5S. It’s important to acknowledge past implementation mistakes and to empower process owners to define their own solutions. Find a few bright spots to use as education materials and identify a savvy 5S champion who has a passion for helping associates relate the “What’s In It For Me” in terms of safety, ergonomics, and wasted motions.

4. Devote both time and tools for 5S. There will always be pressure to turn labor and burden into productivity, so leadership must be clear about a daily standard time and a budget for 5S, including the expectation for a Layered Check process as an integral part the leadership team’s Daily Management System. The Layered Check process provides the improvement in accountability because it assigns a role for everyone in support of the 5S process.

5. Understand and communicate the financial impact of 5S. It may not be obvious when your organization first tries to find financial savings associated with waste around tools, machines, supplies, inventory, etc. Nevertheless, a mature leadership team perseveres to calculate the savings associated with 5S and communicate them throughout the organization. When 5S activities are tied to savings, motivation and interest are increased for the whole organization.

Leadership teams that clearly link the target condition of a sustainable 5S process into the overall business strategy for operational excellence will make quantifiable financial gains. The good news is, the capital investment necessary for 5S is typically very little. An increase in enthusiasm for the heavy lifting required for real 5S is all it really takes. Typical tangible and intangible returns from achieving a solid level of 5S include reductions in:

  • Accidents and the associated costs, including indemnity, compensation, and premiums
  • Floor space used for indirect and direct materials and for incidental activities, which opens the door for increased revenue-generating production
  • Indirect materials as a result of organization and standardization
  • Direct material shortages/stockouts with advanced production control processing

Most importantly, successful 5S activities position your organization to become more competitive. 5S is a springboard for future TPM (Total Productive Maintenance) activities. TPM activities lead to heightened Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), squeezing cost out and adding quality into your production.

6. Be visible. Provide a repeated, purposeful presence. It’s normal to be in a rush, and the practice of Managing-By-Walking-Around often takes a back seat to production. While product must get out the door, it’s good to question what percentage of your work is routine managing production activities and what percentage is harried, stressful firefighting.

Many companies benchmark Milliken & Company, an organization that reduced the amount of time management was spending firefighting from 58 percent to less than half that percentage of time through a strict adherence to its performance system. Our challenge to others is to put a halt to rewarding good firefighting. Managers must model the desired behaviors for everyone, including observing and asking how 5S is, or is not, working. It's the classic "Go To Gemba" approach –- of course, keeping in mind the first principle of respect for people.

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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