To 5S or not to 5S

I recently took part in a discussion that debated whether 5S is the best way to introduce Lean to an organization.  While this is a common approach because of the quick visual impact that gives a feeling of real accomplishment, Implementing 5S, in my opinion, is not the way to introduce Lean.

Many (most?) companies fail by starting their Lean initiative with 5S.  Even though they achieve stellar results and win the battle, they lose the war because 5S has nothing to do with Lean if it is an island unto itself. 5S is a simple-to-use tool that brings great initial results because it “cleans house”.  However, if the Lean mindset is not established well beforehand at the management level, complacency will set in before the culture is in place to prevent its erosion.  It is simply short-sighted and definitely not having anything to do with the Lean philosophy to run 5S before there is mindset, preparation, and a plan for what to do two, three and ten steps after 5S.

Achieving early success is a key ingredient in developing a commitment to Lean, but without an agreement to sustain the effort it is a cherry lacking the Sundae underneath.  Like most new initiatives, there is a honeymoon period when everyone is blissfully in love with the new concept, but as the enthusiasm wavers support is needed from management to bolster the habit until it is integrated into the DNA of the organization. I can give my kids ice cream to cheer them up and get them to do things, but it’s not a long-term strategy; and Lean is ONLY about long-term strategy.

I’m not knocking 5S. It’s an amazing tool, and fundamental to our own LeanMail training, but it’s just an isolated tool if it is not part of a concrete plan. The idea of being able to start the Lean journey with 5S as a way of getting the attention of management or enticing employees is unrealistic.  If management needs convincing, educate them instead of trying to impress them.  Even if you do impress them unless they are educated about the Lean philosophy, they will not have the rigor to go the distance, and therefore FAIL.

Facilitating your management team in explaining why they are backing Lean and why it is not a new project or new strategy but the new “(put your company here) Way” is a much better way to introduce Lean than 5S.

Giving the impression that Lean is set of tools or techniques is superficial and puts a lot of pressure on teams to show immediate results — or risk the death knell:  “Well maybe Lean doesn’t really work in our company.”

5S is a great starting point once there is an understanding of the vision, but it will never create the vision. If you don’t show people where you’re going, they’ll run around in circles trying to be efficient without being effective; the antithesis of Lean.

Comments 0


October 22, 2014

Great post! I completely agree with it.