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Doing A 5S Program In A Chinese Factory: Cleanliness And Much More

    The Importance of a 5s Program

    When a manufacturing facility is messy and dirty, it is common to hear “we should do a 5S program here”. However, the 5S methodology is often misunderstood.

    There are two aspects to 5S and we’ll cover both in this article:

      1. The discipline of housekeeping
      2. Questioning the status quo

    1. The discipline of housekeeping

    The literature on the topic of 5S generally emphasizes this aspect.

    It becomes obvious if we study the first 3 S’s, in the context of a production workshop:

    • 1S: sort through all the tools, materials, etc.; dispose of those that are not really necessary.
    • 2S: set tools, materials, tables, etc. in order; think of rules that make sense; have “a place for everything”.
    • 3S: shine (clean regularly) and inspect for compliance to the rules decided in 2S – make sure “everything is in its place”.

    (4S and 5S are about ensuring that it becomes an established system and that people keep working at it daily. Actually, if you get 1S, 2S, and 3S done right and you can go through that cycle every few months, you have won the battle… As long as management doesn’t take its eyes off that ball!)

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    Succession of 1S-2S-3S cycles as continual improvement


    What are the benefits of a 5S program?

    There is a reason why every lean manufacturing consultant swears by the power of 5S:

    • Extending the lifetime of equipment – noticing and fixing/replacing frayed cables, oil leaks, damaged hoses, etc.
    • Better quality through a cleaner environment (try to sew white garments in a filthy environment, for example), better maintained equipment, and more easily noticeable defects.
    • Better safety and ergonomics through smarter placement of tools and materials, elimination of tripping hazards, removal of fire hazards, etc.
    • Higher productivity through reduction of time to find the right tools and materials, a well thought-out layout, elimination of ergonomic issues, etc.
    • Freed up space – through removal of unnecessary items and better shelving of materials – a clear benefit is that point-of-use inventory can be put in place.

    However, we have seen two widespread issues with 5S.

    • First, the people have to believe in it, and management has to do a big push. If other urgencies always take precedence, a 5s plan won’t go anywhere.
    • The “religion” of 5S in certain companies clearly went too far. We often see this in international groups that apply the same rules in all their work sites (not only in China but also in the US, in Europe, etc.). Specifying where a computer display should be placed at all time on a desk is not a response to an issue. It is NOT what 5S is really about. Which brings us to the second, deeper aspect of 5S.

    2. Questioning the status quo: real 5S

    David Collins, our Founding Partner, often says that “a factory might be all messed up but doing good 5S”. How is that possible?

    Well, 5S is a process. It is not an end goal. And it is a counter-measure to solve issues (for example productivity and maintenance issues) which might be different from one cycle to the next.

    A factory might have done a nice job organizing, making space, and keeping its environment clean. But they might realize that the process layout is preventing them from reaching higher productivity. So they might “break” the rules they have set, make a big mess, try and refine a new layout, and then stabilize things by setting new rules.

    Yes, the workshop might look like a mess for 3 months. And yet this is excellent 5S at work.

    How to launch 5S in a Chinese factory?

    The following approach generally works fine, if the factory’s management has sufficient influence over the staff to get the five S program running. Expect some resistance and be ready to push people!

    1. Study the factory’s issues, in light of their objectives;
    2. Determine if 5S will help get closer to their objectives;
    3. Set up a committee;
    4. Explain to that committee, and to the first team(s) who will apply 5S, how 5S will help fix some of their issues;
    5. Training for production leaders and then for production operators that are part of the first team(s); the trainer should expect to be challenged and should respond firmly!
    6. Implementation of a first cycle, with close supervision and coaching;
    7. Rewards and recognition;
    8. Next round starts. Remember, it is a process, not an end state.

    What have your experiences been with 5S? Have you seen short-lived programs that didn’t go anywhere? Successful implementations? What do you think is the key to make it work?

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