Will 5S resist 4.0 tech?

April 2019, in the corridors of our offices I picked a statement made by a young consultant about one of his clients: “It’s a real mess in their warehouse, they do not manage storage and have no defined storage locations. They lose an incredible amount of time searching for goods. Introducing RFID tags would allow them to geolocate their goods.”
Vigorous assent of his buddy.

>Lisez cet article en français

This micro-scene is symptomatic of the failure of the 5S to establish itself as a fundamental prerequisite for efficient and quality workmanship, the irresistible appeal of technology and the risk of automating the mess.

The 5S, a never-ending story

Guide pratique des 5S

In French Only

The first edition of my Practical Guide of the 5S was published in 2007, the second augmented with the visual management part was published in 2009 (both in French). I thought these publications came way too late as the 5S being in vogue since the end of the 1980s. To my surprise these guides have had an undeniable success and for the second continues to sell rather well still 10 years later!

Alas, the 5S as a school of rigor and discipline, as a way of organizing and behaving, failed to last despite continuous launchings of 5S programs and 5S revival or 5S re-energizing programs. It is common now to delegate those to newly promoted Lean managers, newcomers, absolute beginners, apprentices or even trainees.

Furthermore, Lean has been downgraded to a kind of commodity at the point I hear or read  more and more something like Lean = 5S, which inspired an article on this blog: Lean = 5S, again

The irresistible appeal of technology

Not only did the 5S lose the interest of the higher ranking managers, they increasingly face the threat of the irresistible appeal of technology. What I mean here is this tendency to seek a turnkey technological solution to any problem, regardless of the true nature of the problem. This especially common with engineers, technicians and people with technical or scientific background.

This techno-shortcut tends to satisfy their taste for all things technical as well as to avoid confronting the management problems and the elusive characteristics of human behavior.

With the tidal wave of 4.0 technologies and apps, my warning is futile though. The range of technological solutions has grown wide and quick, multiplying the opportunities to… automate the mess!

Automate the mess

There are many warnings about wanting to install 4.0 solutions before ensuring the prerequisites – often referred to as ‘maturity’ – are in place. Doing so expose to automate the mess, or as Bill Gates put it in chosen words: “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.

Thus, to return to the conversation that inspired this post, putting RFID tags or smart tags on goods in order to be able to find them in a mess, rather than starting to put order and rigor in the inventory management is not the best thing to do.

Certainly, merchandise can be geolocated – to a certain extent – but this solution might be expensive with regard to the very likely only marginal efficiency improvement. If any. Geolocation will not solve the problem of physical accessibility if the store is actually unorganized and messy, will not reduce the risk of accidents, potential quality issues related to the lack of attention to the preservation of goods, etc.

Yet of course, playing on a smart phone or tapping on a tablet is more fun than organizing the storage, define rules and reinforce discipline, and very important, relentlessly work to make them stick. Therefore I am afraid see more of ‘5S game over, try again’.

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

About the author, Chris HOHMANN

View Christian HOHMANN's profile on LinkedIn

One thought on “Will 5S resist 4.0 tech?

  1. Hi Chris,

    How best to manage inventory given the growing capabilities of technology is becoming a very interesting question. When one takes into consideration what an ideal inventory management capability might/could look like, in many cases, it’s quite a bit different from what has traditionally been considered to be the best/preferred way to organize and manage inventory(i.e., categorized and physically segmented according to volume demand… from high to low as in A, B, C).

    With the advent of the KIVA SYSTEMS approach (now part of Amazon) that traditional paradigm was turned on its ear… and it did not make use of RFID tags for geospatial location. Instead, the creators of the KIVA SYSTEM relied on a highly-flexible, mobile rack system in combination with algorithms embedded in the inventory control software that is designed to optimize both the rack space and floor positioning of high-demand inventory items. And the algorithms are capable of adapting to changing demand conditions on a real-time basis.

    Accordingly, the real question should not be whether or not the practice of 5S should be or will be outmoded by the use of technology. After all, even though the inventory positioning in an Amazon warehouse using the KIVA SYSTEM is highly dynamic and seemingly random in nature (due to the mixture of inventory items on any one rack at any point in time), no one would or could claim that the warehouse space did not conform to 5/6S standards. The real question is like – with time – to become whether ALL types of inventories can be optimally managed using this sort of technology or something very similar to it?


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