Five steps towards continuous improvement

Whether an initial foray towards implementing lean throughout your organisation or simply a cheaper and less daunting efficiency solution, 5S is the ideal starting point.

By Jonny Williamson, 6 Aug 2013

It could be argued that manufacturers have started to move away from lean, or at least from using the term in relation to their future business strategies, opting instead to utilise more self-explanatory phrases such as operational efficiency or continuous improvement.

Regardless of the name you decide to employ, embarking on this kind of journey can be a daunting prospect, regardless of the size and scale of your operations. Though the ultimate benefits aren’t in question, to attain them can require lengthy, expensive consultations coupled with the additional investment needed for overhauling existing, or purchasing new, machinery and equipment.

With the pursuit of operational efficiency/continuous improvement becoming ever more necessary in the fast-changing, competitive environment of contemporary manufacturing, a methodology capable of forming one segment of a much-wider approach, yet equally capable of being a stand-alone culture in itself, is that of 5S.

Originating alongside lean management in Japan more than 30 years ago, 5S refers to five words: Seiri, Seaton, Seiso, Seiketsu and Shitsuke, all related to organising a work space for increased efficiency and effectiveness.

The key principles behind the 5S methodology are identifying which tools are used; ordering them according to frequency of use; ensuring the work space is tidy; and ensuring the new system is upheld and maintained.

1. Seiri (Sorting)

The first step is to take stock of all tools, parts, equipment and instructions within the work area and remove those which are never used and are therefore unnecessary. Those which are essential and used regularly should be prioritised over those which are rarely used, and kept within easy reach of the worker. The items which are removed can be stored elsewhere, recycled or disposed of, depending on value and composition. By eliminating obsolete tools, redundant parts and scrap materials, work spaces become less cluttered, are used more efficiently and costs become lowered as only essential tools are replaced and/or upgraded.

2. Seaton (Systemising)

The old adage, ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place’ could have been created with 5S in mind as the best way to maintain an efficient work flow is to have every tool logically arranged, clearly labelled and easily accessible. Employing methods such as colour coding, floor markings, outlined tool boards and modular cabinets ensures the stress of never having the right tool at the right time is removed. In facilities where workers frequently switch tasks or roles, or in the case of staff illness and new employees, induction times are also reduced, if not eliminated.

3. Seiso (Sanitising)

Work areas need to be kept clean and tidy, not only to promote ownership within employees, but cleanliness can reveal potential problems or breakages. It is a far easier to notice leaks, spillages and broken/fatigued equipment within a clean, clutter-free environment, so tidying up at the end of the working day/shift should become a daily occurrence, made easier by a proper implementation of Seiso.

4. Seiketsu (Standardising)

All processes should become standardised if steps one through three are correctly implemented and adhered to, a process which should include input from employees at every level. By standardising processes, a worker moving from his own work space to any other identical work space should be seamless as the same tools will be in the same place as their own. The 5S principles should be instilled in every worker, with each understanding and taking responsibility for their role within the process, including routine preventative maintenance to minimise downtimes and maximise safety.

5. Shitsuke (Sustaining)

The most crucial to implement, but probably the most difficult to do so, it is vital that once the four previous steps have become a part of daily life, that old habits and the familiar way of doing things aren’t allowed to creep back in. One way to counter this potential problem is to focus on continuous improvement, reviewing existing methods and identifying even further ways to improve efficiency, work flow and quality.

There are times when a sixth step is added, Safety, but in reality the successful adoption of the original five steps negates including safety as a standalone addition. An organised, uncluttered, clean, well maintained workplace is one which is bound to have fewer accidents and injuries than one where the opposite is true.