Probably the worst abuse of lean principles - or the most misused – is 5S. Take a gander at this from the Wall Street Journal. According to Ms. Julie Jargon, the value of 5S is time saving – making workers more efficient. The old school management, and new management trained in old school schools, seems to be unable to see value in anything other than cutting labor costs. Pursue 5S, says Julie, and the workers will no longer "waste time looking for tools". So to be sure the folks at Kyocera aren't wasting time looking for staplers, they have a guy wasting time inspecting other people's cubicles. Kyocera took a whopping 2.6% to their bottom line, but the important thing is that their headcount is down and people are using authorized 5S clips to support plants in their cubicles instead of paper clips.
Then there is this guy, after rambling through perhaps the most absurd history of the origins of lean ever put forth, explains "Efforts in 5S almost always improve workplace safety, operator morale, quality, and productivity. It can also be very impressive to visiting customers and prospective clients."
You can find 5S described as "Lean Lite" – accomplished by implementing 5S on a stand alone basis, without any of the other aspects of lean. It is more commonly described as little more than glorified spring-cleaning dressed in Japanese terms.
In fact, 5S is most importantly the disciplined visual control over each operation within the manufacturing process. It is the tool that enables you to rest assured that the kanban is working. It is the physical manifestation of standardized work. It is the essential support for operator-performed maintenance activities. It enables everyone on the shop floor to know that the machine set-up/changeover process is operable as designed. In short, it is the intersection of all of the process optimization and control aspects of lean.
Kevin and I have often written of the widespread tendency to "look lean", rather than "be lean". Stand-alone 5S in pursuit of saving operator time "lost looking for tools", or impressing "visiting customers and prospective clients" is about the best way to achieve this result.
Neat and organized factory floors are hardly a breakthrough insight of the Toyota folks. In fact, it is more than a bit ridiculous to spend money on seminars, training or consultants to pursue stand-alone 5S. If 5S is not going to be integrated with comprehensive process control you are better off saving the cost of the lean training and spending a fraction of it on a handful of brooms and trash cans.
The best explanation of 5S I have seen is in JIT Is Flow – Practices And Principles of Lean Manufacturingby Hioryuki Hirano. (No, this is not a plug for one of my books. My good friend Norman Bodek gave me the honor of translating some of Hirano's Janglish into the King's English, but I have no stake in the book. Nonetheless, I have used it as the standard manual for just about all of the lean shop floor training I have conducted since I had the privilege of learning Hirano's concepts. As far as I am concerned, every manufacturing manager should have a copy of it on their desk for reference.)
Hirano explains that, once 5S is in place in conjunction with kanban, TPM, set-up optimization, quality controls and standard work, its most valuable function is to serve as the physical baseline from which continuous improvement can be made. Without 5S and 3T (The 3T are Target Item, Target Location, Target Quantity – 5S and 3T are worth little without each other. The 5S controls the place and the 3T control the flow), it can be almost impossible to tell where real problems lie, or if changes resulted in improvement.
Leanies wrestle with the challenge of the fifth S – sustaining. If you think 5S is essentially a cosmetic issue – a morale-building, customer-impressing way to look lean, it cannot be sustained because those things have little tangible value. On the other hand, if you really understand that 5S is the heart and soul of your factory's visual control over processes and rate of improvement, the ability to sustain 5S is the best metric of all of your management's commitment to lean.