Are the 5S the first steps to SMED?

This is a classical debate among Lean newbees and even among specialists: are the 5S the first steps to SMED or not? As so often there is more than just a binary choice.

Yes, 5S are the first steps to SMED

Let’s start with the pros. The 5S are a good way to restore basic conditions enabling efficient and safe work in a “legible” environment, where the clutter is taken away and everything is made simpler and visual.

5S do not only get rid of the clutter but require to fix broken equipment, replace worn out tools, overhaul machinery… 5S define rules for sharing common hand tools, locate items, make the current condition immediately visible and from far away.

The very example of this is the shadow board outlining the tool’s shapes. When a tool is missing or hung on the bad location, it can be spotted from a distance, saving the walking to the board to discover the needed tool is not available or out-of-order.

This works with document files, with the famous slant line across the file’s back. Any missing or ill-positioned file breaks the line.

5S will save a lot of time searching for tools, fixtures, documents and avoid mismatching the different versions. 5S rules are defined by the area workers themselves. They are regarded as Subject Matter Experts and the decision of how work environment should look like is delegated to them. With some limits though; 5S rules can never trump safety and health regulation rules, for example.

5S are especially recommended when trying to reduce the changeover duration with SMED.

When trying to reduce all wasted time when changing from one production batch to the next or from one production series to the next, searching for tools, jigs, fixtures, documents, parts, material, etc. is no option.

Prior good 5S help a lot smoothing the changeover operations and significantly reduce the waste of time.

5S are easy in appearance, but hard to sustain. Therefore I respectfully consider them as a school of rigor and discipline. If an organization is not capable to bring its operations and supporting departments to a high level of 5S maturity and sustain it, chances are that introducing more demanding and more complex tools and methods will fail.

That’s why I agree, 5S are the first steps to SMED.

No, 5S are NOT ALWAYS the first steps to SMED

When an organization is in the “burning platform” state, meaning quick action is required to fix a major problem, restore customer service, or bring back a decent performance level, starting with a 5S program deployment is probably not the best option. This would look like arranging the chairs on the sinking Titanic, or in plain language: diverting precious time and resources focusing on the wrong objectives.

It might surprise newcomers to SMED, but two specialists having opposite opinions about starting a SMED program with or without 5S might be both right. The good choice is simply condition-related.

If more productive capacity is direly and urgently needed, 5S is not the best option to start with. “You don’t ask people to tidy up their workspace!” as one once angrily argued. And he’s right, but he didn’t consider other conditions than the ones he was familiar to.

If the main objective is to let operators learn about the Lean basics and hone their waste-spotting capabilities, 5S would be a good pick for a starter. It brings people to gradually understand the importance of rigor and discipline as well as to continuously improve the work environment and work execution itself.

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5 thoughts on “Are the 5S the first steps to SMED?

  1. NO! It’s not a question of what is technically logical but what is humanly possible. In manufacturing operations that are centered on machines, SMED is often among the first pilot projects you can undertake.

    Focused on one machine, SMED requires only one supportive production supervisor, a handful of volunteers to train on straightforward methods, and a modicum of engineering help. And it produces tangible, highly visible improvements that inspire others to launch similar projects.

    5S is the polar opposite. It requires involvement by everyone, whether they like it or not. It is a breadth-first project — sprinkling improvement through the whole plant — as opposed to a depth-first project — making a substantial improvement in a limited target area. As a result, it’s results are much more difficult, when not impossible, to quantify.

    5S is mistakenly assumed to be easy because of its trivial technical content. Reality is the opposite: the absence of technical content is what makes it difficult, and the dismal record of organizations that have started with 5S bear this out.

    5S is a stepping stone, but to Autonomous Maintenance, not SMED.


      • Which statement? This is the first I hear of 5S being the first step to SMED. The first stages of improvement in a SMED project usually address the availability of tools, fixtures, jigs, and instructions on carts rolled to the machine while it is still running. The activities involved may be similar to 5S but they are not 5S, in that they are local to the project, involve only a handful of people, and use tidiness/organization not as an end but exclusively as a means to pursue SMED.

        Tidiness and organization are part of putting cells together as well, and it is not 5S either. It only becomes 5S when tidiness and organization, in and of themselves, become the object of a plant-wide and company-wide effort, with training, red-tag campaigns, reduction to daily practice, routine audits, etc.


  2. This is a sterile discussion. Set-up reduction can be achieved simply be getting the operating team to examine what they do and how they organise their work. One of the most successful pieces of work I facilitated used the TOC Ambitious targets approach. The resulting PRT was sufficient to slash the set-up time from hours to minutes.


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