How to mess up (and fix) a 5S implementation | Case Study

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While the 5S's are a great idea to implement Toyota Production System concepts and kaizen, doing it wrong will waste time and destroy cr...

While the 5S's are a great idea to implement Toyota Production System concepts and kaizen, doing it wrong will waste time and destroy credibility. Here's a case study on where it went wrong, and what they did to fix it.

By Karn G. Bulsuk


The 5S's (seiri, seiton, seiso, seiktsu, shitsuke) were initially pioneered in Japan to facilitate just-in-time production, and is used universally throughout Toyota's factories and operations. It is an important methodology which ensures that things are available when you need them in a clean environment, to avoid a situation where efficiency is decreased because the right tool wasn't available at the right time.

Of course, implementing the 5S must also be done in the right context, or it in itself becomes a waste of time.

There was a software company which attempted to implement the 5S.

The management of that company, in an attempt to implement Toyota Production System (TPS) principles with lean and kaizen, decided that the 5S meant that an hour needed to be spent regularly for all the software engineers to clean up their desks, which included wiping them down with disinfectant.

This attempt in itself was redundant given the presence of clean desk policies. In addition, due to the nature of their work, there was very little in the way of physical tools or items to be sorted: everything was within their computers and the tools and knowledge stored on the network.

While germ-free desks were achieved, there was very little measurable output in helping the company achieve lean. In fact, there was a cost involved as General Affairs needed to source and supply disinfectant wipes for all of the company's hundred or so employees.

While the desire to implement 5S was present, the implementation did not add any value to their operations. In fact an hour of productive working time was wasted weekly, and it raised questions about the credibility of the whole lean initiative, and by extension, management.

In such a situation, it was important for management to recognise the differences between a service and manufacturing industry, the latter of which it was originally designed for. A more positive outcome would have been to determine where additional order was needed.

The software firm relies on a whole range of tools and documentation, much of it written by their engineers, to complete their development projects. This information was located on the intranet in a whole range of unstandardized locations. While a corporate wiki was available, it was often underutilized and most documentation resided in disparate Word and Excel documents, with different project teams using different directory structures to store them.

With this context, 5S would provide the greatest value by bringing order to all the information, to prevent valuable knowledge from being lost. The simplest method would have been to agree on a directory structure and documentation templates and naming convention to allow documents to be easily found and indexed. An even better outcome would to have agreed to use the Corporate Wiki to document knowledge and store attachments - this would allow users the additional benefit to easily search within articles and documents using keywords.

The main point here is that TPS concepts must be implemented in a way that makes sense to your company. While keeping the work area clean and organised makes sense in a Toyota factory, it may not add any value if you're a software engineer or lawyer. The concepts need to be adapted to ensure that the benefits are achieved.

Luckily, this story did have a happy ending - while the desk disinfecting was quietly de-emphasised (not discontinued to prevent management from "losing face"), there were moves to better classify and store information within the wiki. It's better late than never.

Photo credit: Alex Proimos

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: How to mess up (and fix) a 5S implementation | Case Study
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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