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You have heard about the 5S System, or you have not. Or you have heard of two or three of the five S’s. There are some who say there are six S’s. People have all kinds of versions of this, but we are going to talk about the five S’s, as a complete system made famous by Toyota. Our focus is to get you to apply the Ss as a 5S system as soon as possible to our specific needs in our construction industry.

This system was created by Ford and later improved upon by Toyota. Ford called it the CANDO system. CANDO is an acronym developed by Henry Ford to make the work area more organized and efficient.

C = Cleaning up
A = Arranging
N = Neatness
D = Discipline
O = Ongoing improvement

The purpose of the 5S System is the same as its original intention. We will focus on the same activities. We use words that start with the letter S. We will also look at its application in construction rather than manufacturing.

The Japanese have adopted the CANDO system and created their version, called the 5S System, incorporating five Japanese words that start with the letter “S”. We have translated the Japanese words into 5 English words that start with the letter “S”.

Figure 1 – The 5 Activities of the 5S System

The key thing to remember is that ongoing improvement is not possible without standards. Standards allow us the ability to predict outcomes and they give us a sense of certainty. We are better equipped to predict the future. This starting point–setting a standard, is the foundation for improvement.

Our goal is to get you thinking about and using the 5S System as soon as possible. We will focus on the English translation of these Japanese words. Sometimes, when things are translated, meanings can get lost in that translation. We have been doing this long enough and feel confident and understand their intent and purpose. Sometimes you will see the individual word sweep or shine representing the third S. Other times you will see the phrase set-in-order replacing the word straighten for the second S. In principle they are the same thing.

The five words we will use for our training purposes are Sort, Straighten, Sweep, Standardize, and Sustain. The 5Ss comprise a system, and the Lean leader will have these memorized and know how to apply their principles and use them as a complete system. This framework of understanding helps them walk into their job, office, warehouse, or factory and know if things are in the right place and meet the standards created.

I have heard it said that if you are not using 5S, there is no Lean happening at your place of work. Wow, quite the assertion! Why would anyone say such a thing?

When we practice Lean principles and use the 5S system, we have laid the foundation for continuous improvement. I have said many times that anyone can clean up a mess, which is an improvement over living with a mess. However, doing so is not 5S. We can clean up a mess and arrange things neatly, but this is not 5S. We have exhibited some attributes of 5S when we clean up a mess and therefore think we are doing 5S. Unfortunately, that is untrue. It is not 5S to do a clean-up job and put things away.

An area, or job site, which has 5S applied to it allows everyone to see what is in standard and what is out of standard. Thus, the idea of continuous improvements starts at the point in time where we have an existing standard. Continuous improvement is going from one standard to the next standard as we improve towards the goal, removing any waste we see.

5S is the way we get to this first standard and progress from one standard to the next. Only by identifying abnormalities to the standard; and the reasons for these abnormalities; can we stabilize and improve the process? Eliminating the eight wastes and identifying how they creep back into our lives allows us to make improvements on an endless journey towards perfection. 5S is the catalyst for starting this journey.

Cleaning up a mess is not a sad thing. It has its merits. However, knowledge of the 5S System will guide you into new frontiers of efficiency and improvement. Improvement you would not have thought possible in the past.

As employees, we realize we are the owners of this system. When this realization happens, it becomes much easier to implement. When we implement 5S, we can expose waste. After we expose waste, we can see the waste. Then, from seeing the waste, we can eliminate the waste.

Waste can be an abnormality–or deviation–from our standards. We can bring it back to standard. Sometimes this abnormality represents a better way of doing things. Someone has found a better way, and therefore is ignoring the standard. When this is observed, the standard can be improved. This leads to better flow and improved system effectiveness. The big and unexpected benefit we realize is that we have reduced our costs in implementing this system. From the workers’ perspective, we have developed the accountability needed for disciplined problem solving.

In our prefabrication shop, we hired a Lean consultant to come and help us get Lean. The first thing George asked for–even before coming out to our prefabrication (prefab) shop–was a series of videos showing how we manufactured our in-wall assemblies. This was a great process, as it also showed us how to visualize the waste. These videos became the basis for our improvement process. They represented the current condition of work. In one short week of consulting, George taught us many things. The first was how to implement and execute 5S as a complete system. We were a prefabrication shop, and like most shops, we believed we were Lean simply because we were a prefabrication shop.

This is much like many manufacturing companies around the world who think because of what they do they are inherently Lean. We were neat and organized; didn’t that mean we were Lean? No, it did not. George quickly shared that treating the 5Ss as separate activities was a mistake. Thinking of them as a complete system - would get us extraordinary results. Once we completed one iteration of the 5S’s for the entire shop - the improvements became clear. Our thinking changed in a matter of days. Our ability to make impactful improvements blossomed.

Our first notable improvement was the way we built our in-wall assemblies. A basic assembly has a steel electrical box, a ground wire, a mud ring, a bracket, a connector, and an MC cable attached to it. There are many versions of this, but on average, we discovered through testing that it was taking us about twelve minutes to build each assembly from start to finish.

Figure 2 – Wall Rough-in Assemblies

After we made improvements to this entire process, we were building them in less than five minutes. Our first job producing these had a quantity of twenty-six thousand. We completed the job and did the math. We saved over one-hundred and fifty-thousand dollars on the improvements alone. Remember, this was for the first job we applied this standard to. That was five years ago. The savings continue to this day, compounding over the years. We continue to find more waste to eliminate. We are chalking up the savings every time we see and eradicate waste.

5S as a system works and the time spent learning, implementing, and sustaining it is well worth every penny spent to get it going. This is nothing compared to the amount of savings you will yield around your shop. You will receive residual benefits by doing 5S. Your warehouse, job site, factory, and office will see the improvements and begin systematically working the “5S way” towards eliminating waste.

The way to use a consultant wisely is to pick a value stream–such as in-wall assemblies–and stay focused on that product or service. By reducing the labor required through small and incremental improvements, you will see big gains. We used George for one week and focused on our entire fabrication (fab) shop and this one product. We learned how improving using a try-storming method works miracles. We try something, and after running a few assemblies through the process, we try something again. We build on what works and discard what does not. Doing this for 3 hours and running fifteen unique experiments got our team excited and motivated. They saw how easy it was for George to push the learning-by-experimenting strategy, and they took over. They did it on their own. They just needed that push.

Prepare the Mindset

Before starting with Sort, remember to set time aside for creating a vision and training. This is not natural for those in construction. We are not geared to be in a room, talking, for half a day. Do not mistake this as a waste of time. This is enabling time. It will enable you to get in the right headspace for doing 5S. Creating a vision, with everyone’s input, is invaluable. Developing an understanding of the current state using a value map is invaluable. Creating dissatisfaction with the status quo is invaluable.

Step one is to create the gap between where we are compared to where we want to be. Step two is to get a good understanding of the way things are done today. You have always done things that way. Regardless of the reason, an understanding of how work is accomplished is critical. Finally, it is time to dream. Having a dream and getting people to sign up to it is the starting point of the 5S System.

Remember when I shared the videos with him before he arrived. After reviewing those videos, George shared we could take 50% of the time out of our process of building an assembly. This is ridiculous. But we did it in one short week. We proved it could be done, then we sustained the improvements through discipline. We all signed up for the learning and the learning began. We were prepared to do Lean by preparing our minds to learn. We created a Learning Production System for our company. It started with something simple, like 5S, and expanded to focus on problem solving to remove waste and build up our people’s competency in problem solving.

One last word about preparing for 5S. Companies that are best prepared are building systems around their company values. Company values may include safety excellence, gratitude, appreciation, respect, continuous improvement, collaboration, and the list goes on. Where does 5S lie? What values does a system like 5S support? The answer is all the above. Practicing 5S means practicing the values that your organization swears to live by. Shouldn’t 5S be the first system you deploy in an effort of being the best value-creating option for your customers? The simple answer is yes!

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George Trachilis, P.Eng. lives in Canada and consults throughout the world. He started his career at Motor Coach Industries in 1994 where he received Lean coaching by the best consultants in ERP systems, Just-in-Time manufacturing, and Total Quality Management. Having lead change for over 10 years, he decided to start his own consulting firm in 2003. It grew to become one of Canada’s Fastest Growth Companies by 2006. George is a Shingo-research Award-winning Author and Coach. He co-author of Lean Construction Leaders: A Trade Partner’s Guide to Lean.

Perry is Lean Executive Director at Parsons Electric Company (PEC). Perry's interest in construction began with his family's tradition of construction in carpentry and masonry fields. Perry served honorably in the United States Air Force. Following the service, he spent many years earning degrees in the technologies industry until he joined Parsons and began his electrical construction career where he has served for the last twenty-plus years. Perry is a certified instructor for Lean Construction Institute (LCI), served (s) on the LCI education board, and is a certified instructor for Jeff Liker's Lean Leadership Institute (LLI).