Is 5S really foundational?

About a month ago, Jamie Flinchbaugh wrote a great blog titled “Don’t Do 5S”.  It talks about how 5S is not necessarily the first step to a lean transformation.  I agree with Jamie’s blog.

It started me thinking about whether 5S is truly a foundational part of lean.  I know conventional wisdom says lean is a first step.  Why?  The answer I most commonly get, “It builds a foundation for everything else we will do.  It drives accountability and responsibility.  5S makes problems easily visible to spot problems and it is a great start to visual management and standardized work.”

Great.  But what if you work some place that is spotless (spotless does not equal great at 5S) and is very good at following standardized work.  A good example might be a pharmaceutical manufacturer.  They work in clean rooms and their environment is  spotless.  The employees also have to follow standardized work pretty well or they could cause a contamination issue that could cause people to get sick and/or die.  Same with medical device manufacturers or any other medical manufacturing you can thing of.  Now does this mean all these companies are great lean companies?  No.  Does this mean all these companies are great at 5S?  No.

If I were to go into a company in this situation, I would not be starting with 5S.  What would be the point?  There still is no foundation for lean.  Just because employees keep an area spotless and follow the standardized work does not mean they are engaged (respect for people) or can even stop the line for errors (built in quality).  I would start with a problem the company is facing and use that to get the engagement of higher level management (Point #3 of Jamie’s blog).  Depending on the issue the company works on, I would most likely expose the company to several other tools like visual management, Pareto analysis, strategy deployment, PDCA, etc…  I never hear of these tools/concepts as foundational to lean, but they can get people engaged and drive accountability just as well as 5S.   Plus, working on this issue gets results that allow the company to understand the benefits of lean quicker and with more tangible success (Point #2 of Jamie’s blog).

If these other tools/concepts can accomplish the same things that conventional wisdom claims 5S does, does that mean mean they all are foundational?  If so, where do you start now?  Or is 5S not really foundational?  Rather just a tool/concept that needs to be used at the right place, at the right time, for the right problem.

I believe the foundation lies in the thinking.  Lay that foundation in the best way for your situation and you will give yourself a great base to build upon.


Posted on June 16, 2010, in Engagment, Principles, Tools and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Chris Paulsen

    This brings out a great point that should apply to the entire Lean journey. Lean is all about making the business more efficient and effective. If you cannot articulate how everything you do in the name of Lean is helping the business, you may be missing the point. In this case, if a company already achieved the 5S principles, even without calling it 5S, what is the point in launching 5S? Build on the foundation that is already there.

    Chris Paulsen

  2. Isn’t the essence of 5S really visual management? If visual management is foundational then 5S is too.

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