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Lean Operations

5S is a Japanese management strategy that is designed to increase efficiency. The first step is Sorting, in which we took inventory of each department. We found items that we’d had for decades that had no real value and created clutter and additional work. We determined each item’s value. If it did not have value for our business, was it sellable? If it was not sellable, was it of value to donate? If it had no value to donate, we scrapped it.

Step Two is Set In Order. We took all the remaining items and reorganized everything into the area where it belongs. That includes not just product inventory but office supplies; everything right down to paper clips had an assigned location. Everything has a location ID that corresponds to a place in the building where that item should be located. The idea is that everything gets put back in the same place so anyone looking at it will know when it’s time to reorder something. Keep the functional items at easy access and evaluate how necessary other items are.

Neatness and order carry the day at M & G Materials Handling Company since it implemented 5S principles in 2008.

The third step is Shining, which refers to cleanliness. Once we had everything in the correct spot, we needed to clean each area. We did striping to assign work areas. At the end of each shift, everything must be cleaned up and components must be put back where they belong. All tools, for example, have an assigned location. At the end of the day, everything must be put back in its place. By making that part of the daily work and not an occasional activity, people can notice something out of place right away, rather than stumbling into it as an afterthought.

Standardizing is the fourth step. This is still a work in progress for us, but it refers to creating protocol for everything. When a new truck comes in, how is it written up? Where should it be stored? How is a service repair documented? The purpose is for everybody to know exactly what is required. It eliminates confusion by not having people say, “I thought I did it.” Now it’s, “Did you do it and did you follow the protocol?” By standardizing the formal protocols, everybody knows what’s going on so they always know where they left off and that saves time again.

Finally comes Sustaining, which may be the hardest part. How many times in the past have you gone through an inspection and straightened things up, only to have to scramble again the next time because you didn’t maintain things the way you should have? We’ve done that here in the past. It’s easy to fall back into bad habits, so the final S is designed to ingrain the culture into the workforce.

A Practical Example

I got the idea to implement such a strategy at M & G Materials Handling after reading articles about lean operations in manufacturing. I thought that many of the strategies would be transferable to our company, even with only 22 people. We started it about 18 months ago, and we ended up fortunate that we had already begun this initiative before the recession started because the changes that we put in place made our employees more efficient. Productivity has increased as we have cleaned up a lot of both physical and procedural clutter, so to speak.

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At first, we received a bit of pushback from employees, particularly during the first couple of steps. The cleanliness is part of our routine anyway, for the most part, but Sorting and Set In Order rattled a few people. People thought, “Ken’s nuts!” But now that the procedures are in place, they see how much easier things are. I don’t think they would want to go back to what they used to do.

My employees may have been hesitant, but I recognized the value right from the start. Everything I read about 5S made sense, and I also saw the results of some of our customers who have 5S in place. I knew what to expect, so there were no surprises.

One of the most obvious places this has helped is having an assigned location for all inventory, rather than placing it randomly. We have always tried to do this, of course, but we all know how quickly things can get moved around in the course of doing business. For instance, we have about 75-80 forklift chargers. Before when we needed a certain voltage or size, someone had to look at each location to see if that particular model was there. Now we go to an “inventory control card,” and it tells us to go to aisle 1, rack 2, beam 3, and it’s right there. The inventory card, which is essentially an electronic database, lets employees instantly find a product’s location. (As an aside, ours is done electronically and integrated with our business system. But the same principles would work on handwritten sheets of white paper.) Now we walk right to it instead of searching all over the warehouse for it. Another example is with our forklift rentals. Each rental unit now has an assigned parking location based on model specs. Now someone can walk to the truck instead of searching to find the right serial number on 67 rental trucks. Do that a couple of times a day, and it saves quite a bit of time. Time saved is a hard thing to measure, but we can see it in action as a result of these procedures.

There’s still a lot more to do, of course. The first time through gets all the low-hanging fruit, and we can see some quick improvements. It becomes more challenging to sustain that momentum and find places to continue to tweak.

The implementation of 5S has been eye-opening in a lot of ways, not the least of which is the timelessness of its principles. The 5S methodology is credited to the Japanese and came to popularity in the late 20th century. However, I seem to recall my grandfather telling me, “Everything has a place and everything should be in its place.” He was right.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Associtation
Ken MacDonald Ken MacDonald is president of M & G Materials Handling Company, located in East Providence, Rhode Island, and on the Web at www.mandgmaterialshandling.com.

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