“5S is simple and easy” “Yeah, right.”

The following exchange took place yesterday as part of a Q&A session with the Lean manager of a plant employing about 1,000 people, after a tour of the shop floor:

“Why did you start with 5S?”

“It’s simple and easy, it provides a lot of benefits, and then you can move on to other tools.”

“When did you get started?”

“We have been at it since 2008.”

“And how far do you think you have gone?”

“In some places on the floor, we are at level 2. We haven’t been able to measure benefits yet, but you have to have faith that, if you are applying the right process, results will follow. We still need to convince the top managers.”

“What are you doing now?”

“We are training Six Sigma black belts.”

In other words, in four years of implementing 5S, the plant had brought itself up from nothing to a low level, but it did not occur to the manager to challenge his perception that it is a simple and easy tool. Like so many of his peers at other companies, he has gone down this path while leaving on the table opportunities to double productivity, reduce throughput time and defect generation that could be uncovered by analyzing the process. In his case, such opportunities were apparent  in manual, fixed station assembly areas where one operator takes 4 to 12 hours to assemble one unit from start to finish.

In this plant, by the manager’s own admission, Lean has not had a measurable impact in four years. From his own words as well, we have the answer to the first why: a misconception on where to start. But we still need to ask why four more times… The Lean manager is smart, personable, and knowledgeable in the company’s technology, products and markets. But the company’s management may have underestimated the need for outside help to get their Lean program started in a more fruitful direction.