We’ve been doing workplace organization wrong

A New Way of Thinking about 5S

5S is a Japanese business methodology that has become popularized in the manufacturing and industrial sectors for the last few decades, and it is becoming more common to see it in the public sector. 5S, mostly taught as a workplace organizational tool, is made up of the following 5 Japanese words:

Western 5S Framework — Image by Author

Typically the order in which organizations have been trying to implement the 5S framework is in the order you see here. In most cases, Western-based organizations are failing miserably at being able to follow the 5S’. After doing some research into the meaning behind the Japanese words it isn’t much of a surprise to me. Some underlying assumptions are true in Japan that is not in the West. 

Context is always an important part of adopting a system or tool from one business or industry to another. What I have found is that the Japanese don’t follow 5S in the same order that was adopted in Western business culture. It would appear to me that there is a gap. I would like to help close part of that gap today.

Let’s unpack the 5S framework from the Western model first.

The First S

The first word is Seiri (整理). In the Western world, we have translated this as Sort. What it means is to make order out of chaos through the application of a thinking or cognitive process. What came to mind for me was the idea of rational order which is quite different than just sorting things.

In the Continuous Improvement world, there is a word that is used for waste —  muda (無駄). You could think of this as unnecessary items, tools, movement, etc. that are a part of your process. Seiri then, if it is all about producing rational order and removing chaos, is a muda detector of sorts. It is pointing out the waste that shouldn’t be there.

I am not sure about you, but don’t you find it difficult to figure out what doesn’t belong in a space if it isn’t first cleaned? It would be hard to tell what belongs and what doesn’t belong because the area is in disarray. This is the first place that we have missed the mark.

The Second S

The second word in the Western model is Seiton (整頓) — or Set in Order. When you dig into the meaning of the word it is more about organizing the work so that necessary things can be accessed immediately. This would be something done daily for structuring the routine work, to keep everything close at hand in the work area.

The context of this word is important because it references the idea of the organization of the work area and the muda that needs to be removed it. A muda organizer, if that isn’t going out on a limb too much.

Wouldn’t it be difficult to figure out what to organize for removal if a space isn’t clean first? How would you be able to tell how to organize a dirty workspace? The first fundamental chore we all learn from childhood is to clean our rooms. How have we gotten this wrong in our workplaces? Anyway, moving on.

The Third S

What I found interesting is that the first kanji character in both of the first two words, sei(整) is the same. It means organizing and arranging. When you get to the next two words sei(清) is different. It means pure, to purify or cleanse. The third word Seisō (清掃) in the Western model is simply Sweep.

When you look at the word Seisō (清掃) it is more about removing the waste (muda) and debris that accumulated across the course of a day’s work. Not just Sweep. It is muda removal regularly.

Since keeping an area clean is a fundamental task that we are taught at a young age, wouldn’t this have been a better place to start with the 5S framework? Are you starting to see the flaws in the system that we have been trying to follow? But wait, there are still two more Ss.

The Fourth S

Our fourth S in the Western model is Seiketsu (清潔) which we have translated as Standardize. I’m not sure if you have ever been taught this in your continuous improvement journey, but I was taught: 

“Without standards, there can be no improvement” — Taiichi Ohno

So why then are we leaving the work of standardizing until almost the end of our model? The word Seiketsu (清潔) — is a reference to Continual improvement or kaizen (改善). It could be thought of as a disciplined persistence of Seisō, Seiri & Seiton (3-S) with increasing intensity.

The word Sei — (清) in this context is referring to our best knowledge of what good means. The standard that we should be pursuing. Setting a standard to follow really should be the first step we take to learn what we are working to keep clean and organized. 

The standard would also help highlight what waste to remove from an area, how it should be organized, and how to determine what things should and shouldn’t be there.

The Fifth S

The final S is Shitsuke (躾) or what we in the West have referred to as Sustain. Although this isn’t too far off the mark, the more in-depth interpretation is discipline, training, and teaching manners. This could be thought of as the integration of the SDCA (Standardize-Do-Check-Action) & PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Action) processes together and sustained improvement of Seisō, Seiri & Seiton.

The sustaining step of a process should be done in conjunction with the PDCA of a process to sustain the improvements that have been made. But this goes much deeper than just that. Shitsuke is a self-discipline and reflection process that helps sustain the improvements within ourselves first and the process second.

A New Way of Thinking of 5S

Perhaps there is a better way to approach using 5S in our workplaces. I would recommend the following order of approaching them:

A New Way to Think of 5S — Image by Author

If you start first with developing a standard, Seiketsu, it will make organizing, cleaning, and maintaining the work area much easier. This is your first step (Standardize) of the SDCA cycle. Seisō and Seiri + Seiton: these are not done separately but as a continual loop from one to the next. Seisō removes muda (Do), Seiri detects muda, Seiton organizes the muda for removal (Check), and all 3 work together to assure attention to detail will increase as time continues. Finally, implementing a self-reflective practice or Shitsuke (Action) into your daily and weekly work will make sure that work areas stay functioning the way they ought to or look for opportunities to improve (PDCA).

Let’s see what this looks like in a more step-by-step manner and with what I feel is a better English word to represent each S. I also list the portion of the SDCA cycle that each S fits into.

1. Seiketsu (Strengthen) / Standardize

In the Standardize step for SDCA, leadership is setting expectations. There is a plan in place to attain a certain target condition or a future outcome. 

Throughout my career, I have seen many leaders fall short of where they want to be. A common thread I’ve noticed is that they didn’t set the standard from the beginning and didn’t have a solid understanding of what they wanted in the end. There is no vision of what the end needed to look like. 

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” — Stephen R. Covey

If you take this important first step of figuring out where you want to go, motivating and educating your team becomes much more straightforward. Creating a training program and curriculum flows naturally and the outcomes that you hope to get will be realized if the process is followed. 

It has been misunderstood that continuous improvement means giving all autonomy and responsibility to the front line. In my experience, you cannot expect a team to feel comfortable making decisions without clear expectations on what they have been hired to do.

Supervisors and Leaders’ Job: Guide your teams in defining simple, easy-to-apply job instructions and ensure all workers understand

Worker’s Job: To collaborate with colleagues to define simple job instructions

Notice the difference in responsibility between the 2 jobs. The leaders are there to guide the team to create the job instructions. Leadership doesn’t just hand a set of instructions to a team without it being vetted by the team doing the work. This is the foundation for any process.

Leadership can then use Leader Standard Work to determine their activities & actions needed for the day. The team understands what is expected of them and can move forward in being able to execute the process in the next step.

2. Seisō (Spotless) / Do

Routine operations and daily tasks are being done in the 2nd step of the SDCA cycle. Muda removal also occurs in this step. But if this step is attempted to be done without first completing the 1st step of Strengthen/Standardize it will be very difficult for the team to understand what in the area is muda. 

“Without standards, there can be no improvement” — Taiichi Ohno

If the first step in the cycle was done, there is a clear direction on where the team needs to direct their focus. The path forward is clear and the expectations are known. This step is similar to pulling up your GPS app and punching in the directions for where you want to go. It will determine where you are starting from and give you step-by-step directions on how to get there.

Supervisors and Leaders’ Job: To monitor team adherence to the job instructions the team wrote and provide refreshers if needed. This is not to be thought of as punitive but directive and corrective. Focus on the process, not the people.

Worker’s Job: Use the job instructions that were created by the team to manage the process they are responsible for. Use new job instructions diligently until they become second nature.

The routine Activities & Operations of a team are conducted in this step. If this step is completed by the team, the outcomes that are designed into a process will be realized. It will also become apparent what items in the area are not necessary. Muda becomes obvious when a standard is established from the beginning. Autonomy becomes much easier to give to a team when the expectations become crystal clear. There will be much less resistance to removing muda when a standard is made known.

As the team is following the process they designed, the tangible output, whether virtual or physical, can be seen and evaluated in the next step.

3. Seiri-Seiton (Streamlined + Structured Organization) / Check

In the 3rd step of the SDCA cycle, the routine operations are being “Checked” by the team and leadership. The output that was created in the 2nd step of the SDCA cycle becomes the focus of the checking, not the people. 

Many leaders that I have worked with misunderstand the direction of accountability. It isn’t to punish workers, it is to adhere to the process we have all agreed we will follow. When you have a standard that was co-designed with the team accountability becomes much simpler.

Supervisors and Leaders’ Job: To conduct audits of work processes to assure job instructions are consistently applied and remain valid. If a discrepancy is uncovered further action is necessary.

For Leaders to be able to do their audits, they must visit the gemba based on the schedule they have designed for themselves in the 1st step of the cycle. It is in this step where the capture of learning from the gemba walk & quality checks is done. If discrepancies are noted, further planning around updating job instructions and process steps should be added to the LSW for the leader.

The entire team is transitioning back and forth between the Do & Check step throughout the entire workday. This is the normal flow of operation. Doing the work, and then Checking the work.

Note: The Check step is the pivot point between the standardization process and the process of change management or the Plan-Do-Check-Action cycle (PDCA).

What happens in the “Check” step of SDCA-PDCA?

Performance is evaluated against standards and target conditions and if there is an identifiable gap between the output and target condition Problem-Solving is conducted to evaluate potential causality. Decisions are made to start improvement projects to close the gap between the planned and actual output. If job instructions need to be updated it is added to the PDCA plan.

Worker’s Job: To check the quality of their work by evaluating it against the standard that they set in the job instructions.

Cleaning and setting things in order during this phase of the cycle will be straightforward if you have followed the first two steps in the SDCA cycle. Muda will be detected and prepped for removal in this step. 

As the team transitions back and forth between Doing and Checking, Muda is detected, prepped for removal, and then removed from the area. The area is kept clean and organized based on the standard that was set by the team.

If an “out-of-control” condition is detected, workers must ask two questions:

  • Do we have the ability to control this activity?
  • Do we have sufficient resources to make changes?

If the answer is no to either, then the situation requires escalation to leadership for either strategy or kaizen management planning. Depending on how complex the problem that is uncovered will determine if a simple improvement cycle can correct the issue or if a more focused and strategic action is needed.

Whatever the outcome of the Checking step is, Action is required. The action will be either:

  • Nothing, we are getting the expected results we designed
  • Improvement in the process is needed, prepare for a PDCA cycle
  • Much larger organizational involvement is needed in the Strategic Planning cycle

4. Shitsuke (Self-Discipline) / Action

When transitioning to the 4th step of the SDCA cycle is important to remember that this isn’t just sustaining what was done in the last 3 steps of the cycle. This step encourages the self-discipline to reflect on how the process is performing.

Self and Team Reflection occurs in this step regarding learning how process performance is trending. Are things moving in the right direction? Do they need to change? If change is required, how much of a change do we need?

Supervisors and Leaders’ Job: To guide their team to evaluate job instructions that do not appear to work properly.

Leaders adjust and evaluate their LSW to match new job instructions and practice Self-Reflection (Hansei) and Self-Development.

Worker’s Job: Work with the team & supervisor to improve the quality of the job instructions. 

If PDCA is required, workers need to be a part of the improvement team that is focused on learning more about why the process isn’t producing the results it was designed to deliver. The learning that is gained in the PDCA process can be applied to step 1 of the SDCA process and thus starts the turn of the cycle again.

If I am asked to work with a team to implement 5S, this is how I do it. It is also how I recommend everyone else do it instead of the Western model of 5S. It is much more respectful of everyone, removes a lot of assumptions, and creates an environment of learning and improving, and not shame, blame, or justification.

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