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Tips for Implementing a 5S Strategy in Your Workplace

By Daniel Clark | Last updated: April 12, 2021
Key Takeaways

Lean systems have an indirect but positive influence on workplace safety.

Caption: Worker checking stock Source: Zephyr18 / iStock

When I look at my professional network, it seems increasingly common that consultants and specialists identify “QHSE” or “HSEQ” as their area of expertise. The intermingling and consolidation of several distinct specialties shows that organizations are starting to realize the many ways in which safety is inextricably linked to quality, and vice versa.

Quality and safety create strong synergies when considered together – recognizing the overlap between the two improves efficiency by streamlining processes and reducing waste.

Beyond that vague and abstract objective, there are some simple ways to start implementing quality in an organization. Lean methodology provides a roadmap for doing so.

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Lean Systems and 5S

Lean and Six Sigma quality systems serve as well-stocked toolkits for improving organizational quality, including the practice of 5S.

5S outlines various ways in which an organization can improve their operations through careful attention to order, cleanliness, and good habits. The system arose from the manufacturing quality systems at Toyota in the 1960s and has been broadly implemented across a variety of industries since.

The 5S eponymous S’s stand for the following:

  • Seiri (Sort)
  • Seiton (Set in order)
  • Seiso (Shine)
  • Seiketsu (Standardize)
  • Shitsuke (Sustain)

The English translations in the parentheses are an approximation of the meaning of the Japanese words.

5S for Lean ManufacturingImage by Ondrej Pros / iStock

In some systems, this is extended to 6S and includes "Safety" as a discrete category. Hazardous environments may benefit from the increased focus on safety within this system, but including it here might actually downplay its importance. We don’t want workers inferring that "shine" and "safety" are equally weighted or of similar significance.

The intention, rather, is that all of these these relate the bigger picture of quality by reducing the eight categories of waste:

  • Overproduction
  • Inventory
  • Transportation
  • Motion
  • Waiting
  • Defects
  • Over-processing
  • Non-utilized creativity

(Learn more in Creating a Lean Safety Culture: Does 5S Need a Sixth S?)

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What 5S Means

Seiri (Sort)

How much time is wasted looking for things or rearranging, replacing, and ordering them? And how much of this time can be reduced or eliminated? LIkewise, how much space is wasted by keeping inoperative equipment and material odds-and-ends for some ill-defined future contingency?

Seiri is all about systematically removing the clutter and excess so that you’re left with only “what is needed, in the quantity needed, only when needed."

One of the common ways of approaching Seiri is to implement a “red tag campaign." This involves creating a segregated storage area and tags to apply to (potentially) superfluous items as an intermediate step to getting rid the unnecessary items. If an item is returned to service, the tag is left behind in a box or basket. After a set period of time (usually 90 days), the items will be discarded in an approved fashion (recycle, garbage, donation).

The crossover with safety programs is clear here. The practice of “tagging out” damaged or defective materials resembles the red tag process in many ways. These processes can either be consolidated or clearly delineated, but all workers need to understand the requirements as they relate to their individual roles and the organization as a whole.

Seiton (Set in Order)

Everything should have its place. Any equipment or material that avoids the red tag culling process needs to have a proper home – one that is easy to find, well-identified, and known to all workers who may need it.

In keeping with the “Just in Time” philosophy, all equipment and materials should be kept in adequate but not excessive supply.

To implement Seiton, you first need to determine the appropriate location for things, considering ease of access, frequency of use, and of course safety.

Next, the storage area should be clearly identified and labelled to make them conspicuous and easy to locate, not relying on busy and distracted workers to memorize the location of every item in the shop.

Last, each item should be identified so that a worker knows where to return it. For example, a wrench labeled #20 goes back to the place labelled for wrench #20. At a glance, anyone can see if items are missing or incorrectly stored.

Seiso (Shine)

Housekeeping” is one of those catch-all terms used in safety. It’s a favorite term in many half-hearted incident investigation when clutter, obstructions, tripping hazards, or falling objects result from ramshackle storage. However, it does little good to point at mess and clutter without a structured approach to addressing it.

That structured approach is Seiso.

The what, where, when, and how of cleaning has to be formally structured, and as with any duty, there has to be followup. Cleaning processes should follow the same plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle as other processes in the quality system, which means there also has to be an inspection stage implemented.

This isn’t just pushing a broom around the shop floor. The Seiso program rigorously defines exactly what should be cleaned, when, how, and by whom. Responsibility for inspecting the cleaning should also be defined. And as with anything in quality: if it isn’t documented, it didn’t happen.

Seiso crosses over once again into the safety sphere with inspection and maintenance programs, use of cleaning chemicals, and safety’s generally attending to good housekeeping as a hazard control method.

Seiketsu (Standardize)

The first 3 S’s are good practices to get a worksite in order and reduce waste, but Seiketsu is needed to bring it all together and administer the system. This involves completely documenting and standardizing processes and implementing a program to monitor the processes themselves.

When unexpected or unwanted conditions arise, someone has to be responsible for investigating root causes and implementing corrective actions. On a basic level, such investigation is a component of most continual improvement systems common to safety, quality, environmental, and integrated management systems.

Ideally, as Seiketsu is properly implemented, overall conditions are maintained at a level where unplanned occurrences become increasingly rare events – obviously a benefit to safety and quality. The implementation should be conspicuous at a glance, with everything in its place and everyone attending to their responsibilities.

(Find out How to Use Standard Work Instructions to Improve Workplace Safety)

Shitsuke (Sustain)

An odd effect of successful loss prevention system of any kind is that the more successful it is, the less it appears to do.

“We wear fall protection every day but it’s pointless – there hasn’t been a fall in three years!” Yeah, no kidding.

Shitsuke has to do with maintaining the procedures that have been put in place and turning them into good habits. Waving the banner of 5S provides positive reinforcement and helps integrate the methodology into company culture from top to bottom. 5S should be on posters, procedures, handbooks, banners – whatever you can do to get eyes on it. The measurement and monitoring of these systems should be shared with all workers so they know where the opportunities and successes are.

(Learn How to Master the Science of Sign Visibility)

Adding the Extra S

Maybe there is a benefit to including Safety specifically in the system (sometimes called 6S or 5S+Safety), but there is no true separation. Safety is a component of each of the original five S’s. Each S helps provide for overall safety, overlapping with common safety program elements such as inspection, maintenance, documented procedures, training, and so on.

Success in implementing a 6S system requires integration with the safety program so that they work together rather than cannibalizing resources from one another. If an organization ends up with redundant or conflicting systems, or any systems which don’t perfectly complement one another, the point of 5S has been missed completely.

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Written by Daniel Clark

Profile Picture of Daniel Clark

Daniel Clark is the founder and President of Clark Health and Safety Ltd., providing safety and quality consultation across various industries in Calgary, Alberta. Daniel has a Bachelor of Science degree, certification in health and safety, certificates in both CAD design and CNC, auditing certifications and the designation of Canadian Registered Safety Professional. Being raised and practicing in Calgary, the heart of Canada’s energy industry, most of Daniel’s career has been energy related. He has performed safety and quality roles from field supervision to office-based administration and management. Daniel’s consulting business has worked with organizations offering engineering services, restoration, pipeline, environmental, manufacturing and food service.

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