Taking 5S to the Next Level

Published on August 8, 2013

Filed under: Manufacturing

Taking 5S to the Next Level

This article is an excerpt from our “Ask the Expert Colum” featured in our August 2013 newsletter 

Q: I’m wondering how 5S is different in Operational Excellence. My company is big on 5S and has been doing it now for a while, but we’ve recently begun to read about Operational Excellence, too. Do I have to do anything different with 5S in Operational Excellence? What should I do to link the two together?


A: As many people know, 5S stands for Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. Years ago, back when 5S was first developed, it was created to stop excessive accidents and injuries from occurring that were caused by cluttered and disorganized workspaces. Because there were no set locations for parts, tools, and other materials, employees were hurt far too easily on the job by avoidable safety hazards.

By organizing the workplace according to the principles of 5S, however, most of these injuries were eliminated because there was now “a place for everything, and everything was in its place.” In other words, by organizing workspaces and eliminating clutter, much of the chaos involved with working in a factory disappeared, as the environment became much more orderly and predictable.

Beyond the Basics

Most people understand how to apply the basics of 5S in their shops, but 5S is not only about workplace organization. If we really want to take 5S to the next level and leverage it to help drive growth in our business, we need to specifically gear 5S toward supporting the flow of product through the operation to drive Operational Excellence.

It’s not enough to use 5S to simply organize our workspaces, though this is indeed an important part of it. We need to specifically focus our 5S activities on getting the operation to a point where, “Each and every employee can see the flow of value to the customer, and fix that flow before it breaks down,”SM the very definition of Operational Excellence.

One of the most important roles 5S plays in Operational Excellence is that it defines normal flow in the operation. Without 5S, we cannot define normal flow. With 5S that supports Operational Excellence, we should be able to define abnormal flow as well.

Creating an operation where the employees can see the flow of product to the customer is one of the first steps in achieving Operational Excellence. The employees won’t be able to fix the flow before it breaks down if they are unable to see when the flow is starting to become abnormal, and having good 5S makes this visible and apparent.

Additionally, it’s entirely possible that abnormal flow conditions might be caused by poor 5S. When employees cannot locate special tools that are needed to build particular products, or when they find a tool that has been miscalibrated, abnormal flow can result, draining time and resources from the organization and negatively impacting the customer. We can eliminate many potential causes of abnormal flow in our operation simply by creating robust 5S that lets the employees differentiate between normal flow and abnormal flow.

5S for Flow Between Processes

In Operational Excellence, another important aspect of 5S is that it should support flow not only at each process in the factory, but also between the processes where they are connected together using FIFO lanes (either single FIFO lanes or sequenced FIFO) or supermarkets. Good 5S that supports Operational Excellence will help us define the boundaries of the connections between our processes, and this is key because it is these boundaries and connections that keep our inventory controlled.

Having good 5S at the connections between our processes will help us understand if an abnormal flow condition has occurred because it will be easy to see if the products flowing between the processes are in the right quantity or if something is amiss.

Robust 5S will also indicate abnormalities within our process connections. For example, if a trashcan or empty pallet has been placed on a line on the floor, and if that line marks the boundary for one of our supermarkets, the employees might not be able to distinguish between normal and abnormal flow due to the obstruction. Strong 5S would indicate that there are separate and distinct locations for misplaced items such as these. The pieces could then be returned to their proper locations, which would eliminate the cause of a potential breakdown in flow.

5S a foundational enabler that most companies will apply at the beginning of any implementation project. When it comes to Operational Excellence, 5S should be used to define normal flow and enable the employees to clearly and easily see abnormal flow both at and between each process. With strong 5S in place, each employee will be able to see and correct potential breakdowns in flow before they occur, which will create an operation where, “Each and every employee can see the flow of value to the customer, and fix that flow before it breaks down.”SM