The complete model for both small- and large-scale improvements

5S as a method will always reap benefits. To make sure that you build something sustainable that will continue to create value for your company for years to come, you have to start with people, not tools.


August 2017


A successful implementation of 5S has always been considered to be able to generate a high impact. Over the course of time, however, it seems that 5S has taken a slight turn towards either auditing usage or only partial implementation, leading to early decay and lacking sustainable results. Recently, Implement has had the pleasure of working through the 5S cycle, and these are our primary findings.

In January 2017, Implement worked with a European client to help with a 5S implementation in one of the assembly cells at their primary production site. An intense training of operators, managers, all the way to the CEO and group COO was initiated requiring them to be at full disposal for one full week. Afterwards, the assembly cell was stripped down, leading to the following facilitation of a complete rebuild (illustrations 1.1 and 1.2). During the rebuild, multiple points of optimisation were in scope such as drawings, flow of goods, tool placement, picking and the general visualisation of the entire area. Key to all the changes implemented was that they were completed through the new capabilities and skills of the employees working in the assembly cell with the proper empowerment given from the senior managers. This also meant that all changes were ones the employees themselves felt were necessary. They were not the work of managers or consultants coming from a predetermined list of desired changes. The single most important role of the managers and CXOs was to support and help make any decisions that might impact other areas or required investment.

After completion and the passing of the first week of implementation, approximately 60% of the assembly cell, as well as a temporary IT office next to it, had been removed. Floor marking for item placement and communications purposes was initiated, and the assembly could commence once more. The combined result was an increase in output of 110% – a drop in assembly time for the primary product from 106 minutes to 30 minutes – a reduction of 72%.

The motivation and way of thinking from the employees were what made this improvement so successful. When the site was revisited four weeks after the project was completed, the same approach and way of thinking had already been applied to other areas, and a redesign had been done, resulting in similar results as for the first assembly cell – despite a continued high inflow of production tasks for assembly.

Before the work began and after the implementation:
Illustration 1.1 - before the work began
Illustration 1.1 - after the implementation

So why is it that some manage to reap the full benefits (such as the above-mentioned teams) while others struggle to create impact and sustainability?

A simple example is the fifth S – sustain. Here many companies end up with the implementation of an audit-like approach, simply checking whether the right tool is in the right place at the end of the day. In Japanese interpretations, it is about the discipline to dare to challenge the system to always support the reality in which it has to function. The right tool in the right place is a simple way to let an operator know if something is right or wrong, not for monitoring purposes.

This also ties in closely with the motivation, which was so critical to success in the case described. When feeling like we are being monitored, most of us lose our motivation and drive to improve our daily work, thereby losing the most important source of continuous improvement.

Without the aid of the operators and employees close to the process, companies struggle to reach the full potential. The ideas and improvements stop flowing after a relatively short period of time, and the system stagnates and eventually decays.

It is our opinion that 5S implementations should focus on developing the employees, first and foremost, and provide them with the confidence to follow standardised work and challenge it in order to reach continuous improvement. 5S must be built around the mission of the operator, his desire to improve and make the best possible conditions, and thereafter provide him with the capabilities to refine his own work. 5S is about changing the culture (our perception of things) to become more aligned and act towards continuous improvement.

Bringing this knowledge into perspective, the 5S and Lean journey still has a way to go in Scandinavia. The first steps have been taken, and now the next should revolve around thinking and focusing on the value created to gain the full impact. For 5S, the way to do this is by engaging people to do a little better and learn every day.

The most important points for each S
  • Sort: Decision-making – trust the employees to make the right choices.
  • Set: Employee and management engagement – managers should listen more.
  • Shine: This is where the usual confusion happens – think less cleaning, more maintenance.
  • Standardise: This should be done all the time –standardised work is the basis for Kaizen.
  • Sustain: Discipline that everyone follows and challenging the standardised work.